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, with fewer than 10 new cases reported per week, Liberia is beginning the massive challenge of resuming normal life. Many of its public institutions have been shuttered since June. Its economy has been paralyzed. More than 3,600 Liberians have died of the disease.
Those who endured the crisis are now grappling with a new set of predicaments: whether to sleep in the rooms where relatives died, to have babies in hospitals where Ebola patients were treated. In a country where containing Ebola meant persuading people to fear it, the public may remain traumatized for some time to come.
The problem isn’t limited to Liberia. In Sierra Leone, many schools and other public buildings were converted into Ebola centers. In Guinea, another neighboring country hit by the outbreak, few children turned up when classes resumed recently. There, schools weren’t even used as Ebola centers. But parents worried about sending their kids into crowded rooms where disease might spread.
Liberia’s schools were due to open on 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.
It became known as the “Ebola school.”
“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.”
Although the bodily fluids of Ebola patients are highly infectious, scientists say the virus can’t survive in the open for more than 21 days. But that hasn’t quelled concern in West Point, where many residents now imagine viral matter as an invisible, deadly layer atop everything their children might touch.
“The scars are deep,” said Sheldon Yett, the country director for UNICEF.
Liberian authorities are planning to set fire to furniture in once-contaminated facilities to reassure the public. The government has also tried to win over parents with regular radio announcements about the safety of the schools.
“All schools have to get equipped with chlorine water, thermometers, and all have to put in place all measures recommended by the Health Ministry for the prevention of the virus,” says one message, suggesting the schools would indeed make such preparations.
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. Some said it would have to be burned down. But in early January, a few weeks after the last patient left the one-story schoolhouse, the government announced that it would admit students once again.
“They say they can clean the place, but I’m not satisfied,” said Augustin K. Kumeh, the father of a fourth-grader. “We saw the ambulances. We saw the bodies leaving in plastic bags.”
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.
“It’s our only public school,” said Nelly S. Cooper, the president of a nonprofit group called West Point Women for Health and Development. “We have to make the best of what we have.”
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. Many wore the ubiquitous T-shirts distributed by local and international Ebola response groups.
“Eliminate Ebola from West Point and Liberia,” said one mother’s shirt.
The turnout was proof that at least some parents were willing to trust the government to clean up the school, even though the Ministry of Public Works still had not completed the task.
Johnson, the principal, stood outside, waiting for the ministry employees to arrive with chlorine to disinfect the floors and gasoline to burn the desks and chairs. Eventually, out of curiosity, he opened the metal door to take a look inside the school himself.
“Don’t touch anything,” he instructed a visitor.
The electricity was off inside the building. The classrooms were connected by a dark hallway, cluttered with desks and chairs.
Books lined the shelves. Lessons were scrawled on chalkboards, and posters listed class rules. The first one: “Come to school every school day and on time.”
There were no stark signs that the school had been used as an Ebola center.
“All we can say is that the authorities told us they would clean it,” said Sam Farison, the assistant principal.
Even as some parents registered their children, many others in West Point were still debating whether sending their kids back to the Ebola school was the responsible thing to do.
“People are scared,” said Cisco Nimely, who had decided that his fifth-grade son would return to Massaquoi. “But the information they gave us is that Ebola cannot live forever in objects.”
Next to the school, a crowd of boys had gathered to watch a soccer game in a small field. 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.
“We could see everything. We were spying,” said Jacob Quansah, 14.
Now they were discussing whether it would be safe to return.
“We said we’d never go back,” said Quansah.
But most of them had decided they were willing to brave it. School was a lot more fun than selling fish, they said, and it was time to get back to their routine.
“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.”