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Kids in Liberia to go back to school – in a building where dozens died of Ebolaf

MONROVIA, Liberia – The bodies had been removed from the classrooms. The blood and vomit of Ebola patients had been wiped away.

Now, Tete Johnson needed to decide whether she was ready to send her fourth-grade son to a school that had only recently been used as an Ebola isolation center.

The government promised to disinfect it. Administrators pledged it would be safe. But like other parents in the sprawling West Point slum, Johnson had seen Nathaniel V. Massaquoi Elementary School at the epidemic’s peak, when it seemed as if the whole building was filled with the disease.

“What if my son drops something on the ground and eats it?” she said. “He could be infected.”

As the Ebola epidemic fades here, those who endured the crisis are now grappling with a new set of dilemmas: whether to sleep in the rooms where relatives died, to have babies in hospitals where Ebola patients were treated.

Liberia’s schools were due to open Monday. But, in a sign of the worries surrounding the facilities, authorities on Friday pushed off the start of classes for two more weeks.

Massaquoi Elementary, like the other schools, has become a test of the nation’s capacity to move on.

In August, with the country suffering from a shortage of hospital beds, health officials filled Massaquoi with flimsy mattresses and converted it into a shelter for suspected Ebola victims. The patients were given basic medical care and were tested for the disease. Many died before they could be sent to a proper treatment center.

Residents grew furious as ambulances showed up at the school, delivering the sick and retrieving the deceased. One night, the neighbors looted the building, throwing away mattresses and driving out 17 patients, who were eventually brought back to the facility.

“To use a school for Ebola – nobody could be at peace with that,” said M. Glen Johnson, the principal, who is no relation to Tete Johnson. “It will be a serious work to get the students back.”

Massaquoi is the only public elementary and middle school in West Point, a massive slum of about 75,000 near the center of Monrovia. Many people assumed the school would never reopen. But in early January, a few weeks after the last patient left the one-story schoolhouse, the government announced it would admit students once again.

“They say they can clean the place, but I’m not satisfied,” said Augustin Kumeh, the father of a fourth-grader.

Kumeh stood outside of his home, in one of the narrow, unpaved alleys that run between shacks of cinderblock and sheet metal in West Point. The slum is one of Liberia’s poorest neighborhoods. Massaquoi was its heart.

Recently, the school’s registrar sat behind a wooden desk outside Massaquoi, next to the parking lot. Parents and students trickled through the front gate to register for classes.

Next to the school, a crowd of boys had gathered to watch a soccer game. They were all Massaquoi students, though since the school had closed in July, they had been selling fish to raise extra money for their families. Over the months, the boys had occasionally peered through the windows of their school at the patients lying prostrate on dirty mattresses.

Now they were discussing if it would be safe to return.

“We said we’d never go back,” said Jacob Quansah, 14.

But most of them had decided they were willing to brave it.

“If they can clean the virus out, it will be fine,” said Justin Peters, 15. Then he paused.

“But the first day is going to be scary.”