Beersheba pupils take their studies underground

The buzz of Apache helicopters echoed over Beersheba on Tuesday as children spent another day without school.

The buzz of Apache helicopters echoed over Beersheba on Tuesday as children spent another day without school. Classes has been canceled for a week, after a Grad rocket slammed into a kindergarten playground last Tuesday night, spraying shrapnel a block away and prompting the municipality to pull the plug on all studies - from pre-school to university - until the missiles stop falling. But pupils in the city, an estimated 45,000 of them, are beginning to resort to alternative means to keep up with their classwork. While the Education Ministry has implemented programs - including Internet-supported learning and home-school initiatives - to keep the kids up to speed, other groups have begun moving into the bomb shelters and engaging pupils with activities such as tutoring and arts and crafts. Down the stairs of one bomb shelter in the Gimel neighborhood, a second- and a third-grader were busy working out math problems on a dry-erase chalkboard. "I'm doing multiplication," one said. "And he's doing arithmetic. We don't mind coming down here, it's not so bad." "And it's safe," the other said. "At least here we're safe from the booms." But the situation is far from easy. "We're understaffed," said Miranda Shemesh, a social worker from The Negev Coexistence Forum for Civil Equality - the group that has adopted the shelter, along with others throughout the city. "Even though we don't get a lot of kids down here, we need more help." As one of the children curled up on the couch and slept, Shemesh explained that her efforts were focused on helping the kids get their minds off of the "situation," not on supplementing their education. "We play games with them, they do coloring," Shemesh said. "But as far as their schoolwork, these two are the only ones who come down here and do it." A few blocks away, in the city's Daled neighborhood, a similar scene unfolded. A group of kids played with stickers and coloring books as their father, Nissim, looked on and smiled. "It's nice to see them having some fun," Nissim said. "They're cooped up in the house all day, and the situation is extremely unhealthy for them. "My youngest one, he's two-and-a-half years old, and grabs the remote from me when I turn the TV on to watch the news," he said. "He can't even speak yet, and he knows that the news is bad. At least here they can come down, we don't have to worry, and they can get their minds off of everything." The shelter activities have sprung up across the city. In the Yud- Alef neighborhood, a group of soldiers arrived Tuesday morning with games and musicians and conducted an activity session for nearly 30 kids. "It's nice to see them having fun," said local Artur Masika. "At least this way they forget what's going on around them for a moment." But that respite proved short-lived on Tuesday. An hour after the activities stopped, a siren pierced the air once again, sending people running for shelters until the now-familiar boom of a Grad rocket was heard nearby. That rocket, which hit an open area of the city, caused no damage, but pupils in several neighborhoods said it was enough to keep them inside for the rest of the day. "I don't like to leave the house," said one child, who was back in a bomb shelter in the Daled neighborhood later Tuesday evening. "And when I do, I just like to come down here." Parents also said that their children were having trouble keeping up with the Internet lessons offered by the Education Ministry. "My son hardly goes on, he can't understand it," said Tovah, who had brought her two boys to a bomb shelter in Daled. "At least when he comes down here, he gets to interact with the other kids and do something proactive." "The lessons on the Internet are hard to understand," said Shirel, a 10-year-old girl who was working on arts and crafts in another shelter. "Most of my friends stopped doing them altogether." Parents said they were patient, and hopeful that things would be back to normal soon. "I think this whole situation is a mess," said Nissim. "I know they have a lot of people killed over there [in Gaza], but we can't live like this. "One week out of school, okay fine, that's not so terrible, but if this doesn't end soon, our children's education is going to suffer in a significant way."~