Schools reopen in Myanmar's cyclone zone

Children sit in classrooms without roofs; local mother says "sending my daughter to school is a burden to me."

myanmar school 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
myanmar school 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
As students filed into Middle School No. 1 on Monday for the first day of classes since Cyclone Nargis hit Myanmar a month ago, all eyes stared skyward - at the gaping hole in the roof. The school in Thuwana, a southern suburb of Myanmar's biggest city, Yangon, was one of 4,100 schools that were damaged or destroyed by the May 2-3 cyclone, according to UNICEF. More than 100 teachers died in the storm and aid agencies say it is still too soon to say how many of the 78,000 victims were children. The government delayed the June 2 start of the new term for several schools in the harder-hit Irrawaddy delta, where entire villages were wiped off the map. But around Yangon most schools welcomed students, despite the concerns of teachers, parents and international aid groups about safety risks to students. At Middle School No. 1, a few remaining strips of rusted corrugated iron roofing hung precariously overhead. The storm's gale-force winds shattered several of the school's windows and punched holes in its flimsy walls. Security guards outside the school shooed away visitors. Khin Yir, a teacher from the northern Yangon suburb of Hlaing Thar Yar, said she felt it was a "bad choice" to reopen schools so soon. The storm's 190 kph winds ripped the roofs off two of the three school buildings at her junior high and driving rains flooded the interior, she said, asking that the school not be named for fear of government reprisals against her for talking to a reporter. So many schools needed repair that the roofs could not all be fixed in time for the resumption of class, she said. "After Nargis, 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 that many of them lived through. UNICEF, which has been working with Myanmar's government to rebuild schools, was preparing information kits to train teachers to spot signs of trauma. With the region's infrastructure in shambles and huge demand for basic construction materials, it was unlikely that destroyed schools in the delta will be immediately rebuilt, said UNICEF's representative in Myanmar, Ramesh Shrestha. In that case, classes will be held in temporary facilities like tents or "plastic chairs covered with plastic sheeting," he 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. Gary Walker, spokesman for the UK charity Plan, said "sending (children) to what can be unsafe buildings with ill-trained and ill-equipped teachers can actually set them back, rather than leading them on a road to speedy recovery." "What is normally a safe space can become an unsafe space," Walker said. "Safety First" appeared to be the new slogan at Primary School No. 20, where the words were printed on white paper and posted on the walls of the school in the northeastern Yangon suburb of Dagon. A gleaming new iron roof topped the one-story schoolhouse, which also opened for classes Monday - to the dismay of some parents who said they could not afford school uniforms or books. Most public schools in and around Yangon charge about 7,000 kyat (US$7) in fees for the academic year, the equivalent of almost a week's work for laborers in this impoverished country. "Sending my daughter to school is a burden to me," said Khin Myo, as she dropped her 6-year-old off at Primary School No. 20. The mother said the storm damaged the family's home and destroyed the small 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."