Some five million children are out of school in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone because of the deadly Ebola outbreak, according to a report by the Global Business Coalition for Education.
Ebola threatens to reverse years of educational progress in West Africa where literacy rates are already low and school systems are only now recovering from years of civil war.
Schools and other public buildings have been closed because they are believed to increase the spread of the virus. Many are now used as holding centres for Ebola patients.
The report, co-written with A World at School, said being out of school can have a crippling impact on vulnerable children, especially girls, who are more likely to face high-risk situations as a result, including early marriage and pregnancy.
If schools are not reopened, the most vulnerable children will become trapped in a cycle of poverty with devastating consequences for their health and economic development, the report said.
"With children out of school indefinitely, Ebola threatens to reverse years of educational progress in West Africa where literacy rates are already low and school systems are only now recovering from years of civil war," UN Special Envoy for Global Education, Gordon Brown, said in the report.
All three countries have some of the lowest primary school completion rates in the world, according to World Bank figures. In Guinea, 61 percent of children complete primary school, in Liberia 65 percent, with Sierra Leone doing marginally better at 72 percent.
Many children are less likely to return to the classroom if they have been out of school for a year, according to the report, Ebola Emergency: Restoring Education, Creating Safe Schools and Preventing Long-term Crisis.
Ebola, a rare tropical disease has killed more than 6,000 people and infected more than 16,000 people in West Africa, where poverty, corruption and civil war have left a weak health system unable to cope with the exponential spread of the disease in the worst-affected countries.
"It is imperative that the business community takes a leadership role in the prioritisation of education during humanitarian crises," Aliko Dangote, a founding member of the Global Business Coalition for Education, said in the report.
Innovative teaching through radio, television, mobile phones and internet should be used until schools can be safely reopened, the report said.
Schools need to be cleaned and disinfected before reopening, and teachers trained to spot the signs of Ebola and stop its spread. Schools also need better water and sanitation facilities, the report said.
The government should also help schools prepare for future emergencies, the report said.
Last month, the government in Sierra Leone pioneered a new approach to teaching children out of school via the radio, Sierra Leone's Minister for Information Alpha Kanu told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"The radio [and television] programmes have been welcomed by parents as well as pupils, who on a daily basis, studiously, sit by their radio. The fact that they are engaged is a sign of success," Kanu said.
Liberia has introduced similar measures, according to the UN children's fund (UNICEF).
This article first appeared on the Thomson Reuters Foundation news service.
Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation