How William Helped His Friends Stay Safe and Learn
Schools Are Open, but Classes Are Empty
It’s January 2021, and William, 15, is finally back in class after ten months of school closures in southern Ghana, but he’s nearly the only student there. Out of more than thirty students who should be in his homeroom, only seven have come to class. In another week, two more will join, but more than two-thirds of his fellow students are still at home. Some of William’s close friends are among those missing.
COVID-19 cases are rising again in Ghana, and even though schools are open, parents are worried about letting their children come back until they’re certain the situation is safe.
“My parents want me to continue to stay at home until the situation is better,” explains his friend Bethany.
“I have the ultimate role in ensuring the wellbeing of my children, especially at this time where the coronavirus has almost destroyed our way of doing things,” says his friend Danso’s father.
“There is a lot to catch up in school, yet the time is limited.” – William, 15
Similar sentiments echo throughout William’s neighbourhood. Schools in Ghana have been improving their safety with regular handwashing, masking, social distancing, and other measures, but teachers and officials are facing the challenge of informing parents about all the changes the school has made to protect students.
But while educators are struggling to get the word out to worried parents, children’s missed school days are piling up. The longer they are out of school, the less likely they will be to return, as families shift to putting children to work or arranging marriages for them. Even when they do return, the more school they’ve missed, the harder it is to pick up where they left off.
“Lessons have been going on since reopening,” William says. “There is a lot to catch up in school, yet the time is limited.”
Helping Parents Feel Safe
William’s school had received support from Right To Play to become safer for students before reopening. New handwashing facilities with soap and masks were prepared for returning students. Once the school reopened, junior leaders and teachers worked together to demonstrate the right protocols to students who did come back.
“I felt safe in school because of the COVID-19 safety measures put in place,” Williams says.
The new measures meant schools were safer for children than many of the alternatives. Many children had taken jobs that exposed them to the public without the chance to social distance from other people, while others who stayed home lacked access to masks or clean water for regular handwashing. Schools were also vital spaces for sharing accurate information about COVID-19 with children, who would then share what they had learned with their parents.
But many parents and children in his neighbourhood didn’t know about the recent steps the school had taken to protect students. Williams’ friends’ parents were some of them, and he wanted to help them make an informed decision about whether it was safe enough for his friends to return to school.
“It is important to show them what has been done to protect children in the school in order to build their confidence,” he says.
Finding the Confidence He Needed
William felt empowered to take on the responsibility of informing his friends’ parents because of the confidence and support he’d developed in Right To Play programs at his school. In 2019, William became a Junior Leader in his class, and he was involved in the local literacy club where children practiced reading together. He also participated in debates and a children’s parliament project that the Junior Leaders ran to practice their public speaking skills.
“I visited many homes and talked to both parents and children.” – William
In the first year of the pandemic, he participated in at-home support programs that helped him stay hopeful and eager to return to school. When his school started to reopen, William joined a group of Junior Leaders who worked with teachers to show the other students how to protect themselves through handwashing and mask-wearing.
William connected with the teachers in his school who had been running the clubs and explained that he had a plan to share information about the steps the school was taking with parents of absentee children. He hoped that with the new safety measures, parents would feel reassured, and other children would be able to return to school.
The teachers supported him, and with their encouragement, he decided not just to reach out to his friends, but to all the families with absentee children in the neighbourhood to let them know about the changes at school.
A Full Classroom of Students Once More
William spent three weeks reaching out to families. He went door to door after school, speaking to parents about the enhanced measures the school was taking to keep children safe, and the importance of children returning before they had missed too much school.
“With the support of my teachers I visited many homes and talked to both parents and children,” William says.
“My parents would not have allowed me to come to school if William and my teachers had not visited.” – Joy, William’s friend
Once parents knew about the new safety measures at school, many felt that it was safe enough for their children to return to class. By the end of the three weeks, William’s homeroom was full once again. His friends and fellow students are grateful for his work educating their parents.
“My parents would not have allowed me to come to school if William and my teachers had not visited. I am happy to be back, and I thank them very much,” Joy, a friend of William, says.
William himself remains humble about the role he played in helping his friends and fellow students come back to class and stay safe, even as the pandemic continues to pose challenges.
“I know we all need one another, and my friends needed me to be back to school,” he says.
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The initiative to get children back into school that William helped with is part of the Gender Responsive Education and Transformation (GREAT) program, which is made possible thanks to the financial support of the Government of Canada provided through Global Affairs Canada. Active in Ghana, Mozambique and Rwanda since 2018, the GREAT program uses Right To Play's play-based learning approach to remove barriers to education, especially for girls, and to build teacher capacity to improve learning outcomes.