FREETOWN (AFP) - Sierra Leone said on Wednesday it would reopen the country's schools on March 30, after a seven-month shutdown to limit the spread of the Ebola virus.
Classrooms have been empty since the government announced a state of emergency in July in response to an outbreak which has killed almost 9,000 people in the region, more than 3,000 of them in Sierra Leone.
President Ernest Bai Koroma's office said he had granted permission for work to start on "water and sanitation issues, Ebola screenings and psychosocial support", ahead of the reopening.
"Thermometers will be made available to all schools to deal with any sudden attack before referral to a holding centre," education minister Minkailu Bah was quoted as saying.
"Isolation centres will be set up in each school and all primary school pupils will be dewormed."
The announcement clarifies a commitment made by the government in January to have all schools open by the end of March.
Sierra Leone is one of three west African countries hit by the deadliest Ebola outbreak on record, together with Guinea and Liberia.
The rate of new infections has slowed significantly in recent weeks, paving the way for a gradual return to normal.
More than a third of Sierra Leone's population of six million are aged between three and 17, although in reality the secondary school attendance rate is less than 40 per cent for both boys and girls.
There was a mixed reaction to Sierra Leone's announcement in the capital Freetown, where private radio station African Young Voices was deluged with critical calls.
"The decision will be a recipe for danger and it would have been better for the authorities to wait a few more months before making the reopening," one caller said.
But another listener welcomed "a thoughtful decision for all" that would halt a rise in teenage pregnancy seen since schools closed and show the war against Ebola was being won.
Unicef spokeman Christophe Boulierac told reporters in Geneva on Tuesday around 5,000 children had returned to school in Guinea since classrooms reopened on Jan 19.
Liberia announced on Sunday its schools would reopen on Feb 16, two weeks later than the date originally envisaged.
In a second announcement on Wednesday, Sierra Leone said it was delaying a population census originally planned for April until December because of the crisis.