This too shall pass – Reflections from 2020 to 2023

Cast your mind back to September and October 2020. Was your school like ours? Busy, working on new lesson plans and class settings to enable students to come back into school during Covid? Like many schools in Africa where internet connectivity is poor and limited to those who are from the more affluent families, our preparations for Covid meant that students took home workbooks and textbooks and worked on them in their homes, on their own and in small groups. Their parents brought them to be marked at school and new workbooks were provided on successful completion. Older students could come into school and use the library and IT facilities under the supervision of teachers. We were excited to be re-starting school, albeit in a slightly restrained setting. Just as the first groups of students were coming back into school, war broke out in the region in November 2020.

Six weeks later, the city was occupied by government troops and their allies from Eritrea. Moving outside the home was too risky. Students could not risk going to school. Some families fled the city to the countryside, but most returned quickly as it was even more dangerous. Even within the home there was constant fear of a knock at the door. Luckily in Mekele, we were not as badly affected as many other more rural locations and remote towns. Although the city was bombed by fighter jets and drones, proportionately, not as many lives were lost and less damage was done.

Our school has escaped relatively unscathed and most of our teachers and other staff members are safe.

During the war our focus was keeping the children healthy and give them as much access to educational materials as possible. We were also busy planning for a resumption of classes, using the limited resources we had. We also grew vegetables to provide for our families and purchased grain to supply to those in desperate need. From February to September 2022, we managed to operate school for kindergarten right through to Grade 6. We prepared classes of accelerated learning to enable the students to catch up and get up to the age level in key subjects. Not only was the academic exercise good for the students but also the social interaction with their peers was excellent for their mental health. Unfortunately, after six months, the city was bombed again. Again, large gatherings such as school classes were too great a risk.

In November 2022 a cessation of hostilities was signed between the region and the central government. Hostilities stopped in our area. But there were still many displaced people and some were living in government schools, so these schools could not reopen. We were permitted to reopen in February 2023, and since then we have been taking care of all of our registered students at the school from kindergarten to grade 12. We also accepted another 400 students on a temporary basis, who live close by and whose own schools had not opened. We are operating an accelerated learning programme. For our students and staff, there is no summer break this year; they will study right through to the end of August and then have a short break for a couple of weeks to celebrate Ashenda (the Festival of Girls) and the Ethiopian New Year. Then we will be straight back to work to keep catching up. Our Grade 12 students will have the opportunity to take their end of school exams, which enable them to qualify for university entrance. There will be two batches of exams for the students who were due to take their exams during Covid times as well as those who should have graduated since.

As well as academic studies, we are making certain that our students are getting plenty of time for recreation and creativity. This is an essential part of the healing process. For older students we have opportunities for discussion and breakout groups to enable the students to get their concerns out into the open. Teachers have been trained in how to handle mental health issues and to deal with psychological trauma. Even though our city was not as badly affected as most of the region, most families have been affected by the events of the last two years. Family members have been lost, directly through war or through suffering through lack of food or lack of medical support during the 2-year blockade on the region.

We are proud of the Nicolas Robinson school. Our staff have managed to cope through all these difficulties, they have been strong, flexible, they have turned their hand to every task that we asked of them. Students are eager to learn, and we are proud that they, too, have shown their resilience and their eagerness to support their communities in different ways using the skills they have. Some have set up local teaching groups for younger students and themselves acting as mentors and keeping some of the kids occupied and their minds off the distractions of the events around them and often the grief in their families. Others have volunteered for the International Community of the Red Cross (ICRC) as ambulance porters, as rescue teams and others have delivered food and clothing to those who are in the worst situations. Our teachers have come back to school and are enthusiastic to start teaching again and resume a normal life.

We are encouraged that our students will be in a strong position to apply for universities outside of Ethiopia over the next couple of years as well as other senior education opportunities. One of the saddest things is to see older students in classrooms at grade levels where they should have passed 3 years ago. For some, this is too much. They cannot face returning to school after all that has happened. Others, though, are determined not to let war dash their dreams. As they all say: “This too shall pass”.