Around 15,000 children in Borno State, northeastern Nigeria, have stopped attending classes since February 2013, according to a Borno State Ministry of Education official who preferred anonymity, as Boko Haram extremists continue a wave of attacks on state schools.
Most of the children are primary school students, according to the official. Thus far Boko Haram (BH) has burned or destroyed 50 of the state's 175 schools, he said. Teachers in the state confirmed the estimate.
Students are staying at home for fear of attack, or are being transferred to private Islamic schools, known in the north as Islamiyya. On 6 May state schools officially reopened following a six-week break, but many have stayed closed, as officials and teachers fear attack.
BH gunmen had initially targeted schools - most of them primary - at night, detonating grenades and home-made explosives or dousing classrooms with gasoline and setting them alight, according to military and education officials.
But on 18 March BH shifted tactics, attacking four schools in Maiduguri, capital of Borno State (population 4.17 million, according to the 2006 census), in broad daylight, killing four teachers and seriously injuring four students.
On 9 April suspected BH members killed two school teachers in their homes, and four officials of the Borno State Feeding Committee, which runs a primary and secondary school feeding programme, while they were on an inspection tour of schools in Dikwa town, Borno State.
The shift to direct attacks on educators and students has rattled teachers, leaving many too frightened to go to work.
"We have been asked to resume classes but we are too afraid to return to school despite the stationing of a military post outside the school,” said Hajara Modu, a school teacher at Customs primary school in Maiduguri.
Secondary school enrolment is only 28 percent in Borno State - the lowest in the country, according to a 2010 Nigeria Education Data Survey.
On 10 April BH leader Abubakar Shekau claimed ordering the attacks on schools in an Internet video post, citing Nigerian military raids on Islamic schools in Maiduguri as the impetus.
Adama Zannah, a father of four students attending Sanda Kyarimi secondary school, one of the four schools affected in the 18 March attacks, told IRIN: "I want my children to attend school but they can only do that if they are alive... I can't allow them to go to school in this atmosphere of fear when schools are burnt and gunmen open fire during classes."
Islamic school attendance up
Many parents see the safest option as Islamic schools, which have seen a sharp rise in enrolment rates over recent months. These are private religious schools which teach an Islamic education, though some include English and maths in the curriculum.
Given the demand, fees at some Islamic schools have also increased - by 300 percent since the beginning of the year in some cases, according to parent Muhammad Kolo. He used to pay US$1.90 per month to educate his two children but the fee is now $7.60.
Borno State information commissioner Inuwa Bwala said the state government will try to strengthen Islamic schools with more money and more materials, and standardize their curriculum to teach children the Koran alongside Western education. (BH literally means “Western education is a sin” in Hausa).
The school districts worst-affected by the arson attacks include old Maiduguri city and four local government areas - Marte, Kala-Balge, Gamboru Ngala and Mabar - in the northern part of Borno on the border with Cameroon and Chad, where BH has a strong presence.
Many students from these areas have been taken to neighbouring Dikwa District to take their May and June exams, protected by a heavy military detail.
The government has deployed soldiers in at-risk schools across the state but some parents fear this puts their children in yet more danger.
"The presence of soldiers makes them more prone to attack by BH which considers the military as their main enemy," said Ahmad Kyari, a resident of Gwange Quarters in Maiduguri city where all the schools in the area have been burnt; his three children are at home.
Attacks on schools violate children's right to education, as well as a number of human rights. In situations of conflict, they may also violate international humanitarian law and criminal law, and may constitute war crimes.
"I'm really afraid to go to school. The thought of gunmen storming the school and opening fire or throwing explosives gives me the shivers and this is a thought that fills the minds of many students like me," said Nura Babani, a student of Sanda Kyarimi secondary school which was attacked on18 March.
"It is too dangerous to go to school now, especially with the attacks on some schools in broad daylight during classes,” student Maryam Habib, told IRIN.
In some areas where the government was trying to renovate schools, BH had set them ablaze again. Gwange II primary school in the Gwange area of Maiduguri city, considered a major BH stronghold, was burnt four times by BH, each time after undergoing renovation.
The school-burnings "sabotage government's effort at improving on education in Borno State", Borno State information commissioner Bwala told IRIN.
"It is not possible to learn in an atmosphere of fear and uncertainty. How do you expect a teacher to put in his best and a child to learn effectively when they are always on edge, in anticipation of gun and bomb attacks. This is killing education here," said the Ministry of Education official.
The federal government is exploring ways to forge a dialogue with BH but thus far, there has been little progress, and in recent weeks the militants have been staging a fierce comeback in the northeast. Over 3,600 people have been killed in BH-related violence since 2009, including extrajudicial killings by Nigerian security forces, according to Human Rights Watch.