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Despite damage, many Myanmar schools open

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

THUWANA, Myanmar -- As students filed into Middle School No. 1 on Monday for the first day of classes since the cyclone hit Myanmar a month ago, all eyes stared skyward -- at the gaping hole in the roof.

The school in Thuwana, a southern suburb of Yangon, was one of at least 4,100 that were damaged or destroyed by Cyclone Nargis, according to UNICEF.

The May 2-3 storm struck during the summer break, which runs until the end of May. The government delayed the June 2 start of the new term for a number of schools in the worst-hit areas of the Irrawaddy delta, where entire villages were wiped off the map.

But most schools reopened on schedule Monday in an around Yangon, despite the concerns of some teachers, parents and international aid groups about safety risks to students.

At Middle School No. 1, classes resumed in a building where strips of rusted corrugated iron roofing hung precariously overhead. The storm's winds shattered windows and punched holes in the school's flimsy walls, and, according to one teacher, knocked the building off its foundations, so it will eventually have to be rebuilt.

"I am worried about the rain. If the rains get inside the school, the children will get sick," said San Aye, the mother of a 12-year-old.

Still, she said she supported the decision to start school because she thought any delay would hurt the students academically -- a widespread concern in a country where education is highly valued and primary school enrollment rate is 82 percent for both boys and girls, according to UNICEF.

But Khin Yir, a teacher from the northern Yangon suburb of Hlaing Thar Yar, said she believed it was a "bad choice" to reopen schools so soon.

The storm's 120 mph winds ripped the roofs off two of the three buildings at her junior high and driving rains caused widespread flooding, she said. She asked that the school not be named for fear of government reprisals for talking to a reporter.

"We teachers tried to salvage what we could, but the rain damaged everything," said Khin Yir, dressed in the standard school uniform of a white shirt and forest-green longyi, the traditional sarong worn by men and women in Myanmar.

"We teachers hand-dried as many books as we could, and it's a good thing we did because we have to use them now," she said. "We haven't gotten any new supplies."

Khin Yir said she feared for her students' safety and was concerned about how to help them cope with the trauma caused by the storm, which left at least 134,000 people dead or missing and more than 2 million homeless.

Even in Yangon, the biggest city, so many schools needed repairs that the roofs could not all be fixed in time for the start of classes.

Primary School No. 20 was among the lucky few -- it reopened Monday with a gleaming new iron roof topping the one-story schoolhouse in the northeastern Yangon suburb of Dagon, and the words "Safety First" posted on the walls.

Despite their good fortune, some parents expressed dismay at the start of classes.

"Sending my daughter to school is a burden to me," said Khin Myo, as she dropped her 6-year-old off. The storm heavily damaged the family's home and destroyed the shop where she used to make a living selling onions and chilies.

"I still haven't been able to put my life back together," she said. "I would have preferred if school reopened a month later."

Textbooks and uniforms cost 25,000 kyat -- $25 -- for the academic year, the equivalent of three week's work for laborers in this impoverished country.

At Middle School No. 1, less than half of the 385 enrolled student turned up Monday, and a teacher said it was likely because their parents couldn't afford school supplies or transportation. The teacher requested anonymity so as not to draw condemnation from the government.

Tom Miller, chief executive officer for the British charity Plan, said that returning to school "is a vital part of the recovery process."

"If properly organized, schools can offer a strong foundation for the entire community's recovery," he said.

"But reopening schools before they are ready can do children more harm than good. What should be safe spaces for children become unsafe spaces if pupils are rushed back into damaged buildings with staff who are ill-equipped to help," he said.

In the low-lying delta, where infrastructure is in shambles and basic construction materials are in short supply, destroyed schools are unlikely to be rebuilt soon, said UNICEF's representative in Myanmar, Ramesh Shrestha.

When classes resume, they will be held in tents and other temporary shelters, she said. The government has arranged for some schools that withstood the storm to run morning and evening sessions to accommodate students whose schools were destroyed, several teachers said.


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