MONROVIA, Liberia — Students in Liberia began returning to the classroom Monday after a six-month closure during the Ebola epidemic that left thousands dead, lining up in their uniforms to have their temperatures taken before they could enter school gates.
Pupils who trickled in to Saint Michael High School on the outskirts of the capital also washed their hands with chlorinated water before going inside.
"I feel happy to come to school today because for so long I have not seen my friends," Albert Kollie, 18, told The Associated Press. "I am very happy to be counted among the living and I pray that Ebola be eradicated from this country."
Many students said they had grown tired of sitting at home, and at least one principal said teenage pregnancy had spiked during the six-month school gap. A few, though, remained a bit fearful about returning even though there are just a handful of Ebola cases left in the country that once saw 100 new patients a week.
"We will be afraid to touch each other in class, some colleagues will be afraid to come around," high school junior Eric Blackie said. "But we cannot just be sitting home."
Liberia has seen the highest death toll from the Ebola epidemic, with 3,800 killed. In neighboring Guinea where the outbreak began, schools already have reopened though many fearful parents have kept their children home. In Sierra Leone, where disease transmission is now the highest, officials hope to reopen schools by the end of March.
Deputy Education Minister Remses Kumbuyah said more than 5,000 kits were distributed to schools that included thermometers and chlorine for hand-washing.
"We are asking all the school administrators to ensure that a classroom should not have more than 45 or 50 students."
Overcrowding is a major problem in Liberia's schools, where as many as 100 pupils may be in a single classroom. Since Ebola is spread through direct contact with bodily fluids, administrators want to minimize the potential spread. Health officials have warned that a single new case could trigger a whole new cluster of infections.
Nearly 9,200 people have died since the first Ebola deaths in rural Guinea in December 2013. The disease ravaged through Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone — all countries with weak health systems that were ill-prepared for such an epidemic.
In Sierra Leone on Monday, the government promised a full investigation after an internal audit found that nearly one-third of the money it received to fight Ebola was used without saving the necessary receipts and invoices to justify the spending.