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Back in class

South Sudan
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After seven months out of school, students say they are ready to return.

Lisa Lynn Hill

This isn’t your typical day of school; students are excited to be back and want to learn at an accelerated pace to make up for lost time and “loitering around” as 17-year old Ayom Garang describes it. With wide eyes and fresh uniforms, the Primary 8 students of Venus Star Academy, situated on the outskirts of Juba, in Mangaten, are in their very first week of class since the gates were locked in March 2020, due to COVID-19 restrictions. On the chalkboard there are notes on migration and backpacks are hung around the walls of the bamboo enclosure. A few of the star-students step outside of the classroom to tell us about the re-opening.

“Home was so boring,” says Abany Marial. She’s the youngest student in Primary 8, at 14 years old. “I used my books to study by myself.” Her classmate, Akoch Agoth Tong (17) says, “We heard the radio lessons once in a while, but we didn’t have a radio and a lot of times the charge is out of the phone or there is no signal.” Then the most outspoken boy of the group, George Latjor Dak (17) adds, “The girls don’t have phones – they have to ask their brothers to borrow it.” “But they’re never home and they don’t want to share,” interjects 15-year-old Yar Maduk, while thinking of her brothers.

Shortly after the schools were closed, UNICEF and the Ministry of General Education and Instruction introduced school lessons on the radio and distributed 5,000 solar-powered radios to the most vulnerable students. From 5 October, candidate classes are gradually resuming, enrolling at least 100,000 students in 1,400 schools. The remaining classes will re-open in February 2021 as long as the situation remains conducive. In the meantime, the radio lessons will continue while an additional 27,000 radios are distributed.

The Venus Star Academy was first sanitized before re-opening its doors and there is a mandatory hand-washing station parked right by the entrance gate to keep hand hygiene intact. Water access has been prioritized with a 1000-liter tank visible behind a classroom. Students and teachers must come with their own masks and socially distance as much as possible. The group of students all confidently say they are not scared to be in class during this pandemic. “We follow the preventive measures and we wash our hands,” says George, while pointing towards the hand washing station. Ayom firmly adds, “We don’t want to repeat [Primary 8], we just want to study.” The students smile and say that they also missed “teachers and friends, along with the school and learning in general.”

Three subjects are taught in the morning, then the students go for lunch from 12:00 pm – 14:00 pm, then they return to school for more subjects until 17:00 pm. When school is operating normal, free lunches are provided to the students. COVID-19 is still very much around and precautionary measures prevent the school lunches from happening. Some students walk an hour to get home for lunch only to turn around and make the hour journey back to class. George says, “We get tired physically, but not mentally.”

Even though radio lessons are playing, students have missed a lot of lessons and exams are fast approaching. The headteacher, David Livingstone Garang, steps in each classroom he passes by, giving a motivational speech to the students, enforcing the importance of education and being diligent in their studies. “Our learners are strong. We know the lens of our work and are confident in the time for exams,” he remarks about his students. Primary 8 and Senior 4 are now on an accelerated lesson-plan to finalize exams early next year. Headteacher Garang tells the students, “Even when you are in school you might feel tired or angry, but you are in motion, you are on the right path.”

UNICEF and education partners have been an active voice encouraging the reopening of schools. A step-by-step plan was made with all preventive measures in place - including hand washing stations, masks, and soap. The statistics of children returning to school the longer they are out, are not good. Also, children out of school are at a higher risk of violence, early marriage and teen pregnancy.

95 out of the 140 Primary 8 students of the Venus Star Academy have returned to class as of now. Some students went with their families far into the villages once COVID-19 hit Juba, feeling safer in the bush, away from many people. Now that protective systems are in place and more is known about the disease, they are slowly making their way back into town. As Headteacher Garang closes his last pep-talk, the five students eagerly ask about the time to make sure they aren’t late for their next lesson and head back to class.

UNICEF would like to thank the EU, the Global Partnership for Education, The Government of Norway, UK Aid and USAID for supporting UNICEF education programmes in South Sudan including the reopening of schools.