Typhoon-hit Filipino schools to reopen

Thousands of children across typhoon-hit Mindanao island in the southern Philippines will return to school on 14 January, more than a week later than schools elsewhere in the country, as officials struggle to get education back on its feet.

“Never before have we had to deal with devastation of this magnitude. But we need to establish some kind of normalcy for the children,” Dodong Atillo, a communications officer with the Department of Education, told IRIN.

A state of national calamity was declared by President Benigno Aquino on 7 December. The opening of schools after Christmas was delayed as many schools were being used as evacuation centres.

According to the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), 569 schools, both primary and secondary, were damaged or destroyed by the storm, resulting in US$24.5 million worth of damage; 231,681 students were affected.

While classes will resume in schools that were partially damaged, children whose schools were totally destroyed will be taught in tents erected outside, UNICEF said.

“What we see is the devastation of the entire education system, not just damage to classrooms,” said Yul Olaya, a UNICEF emergency education officer from Davao.

In the municipalities of Boston, Cateel and Baganga in Davao Oriental, there are only two schools left.

“There are some areas where schools are now totally gone. This sends a signal to children that they can’t [ever] go back to school again,” Olaya said.

In response, aid agencies and development groups have set up tents as temporary learning spaces for informal children’s play sessions. Using drama, song and dance, children are encouraged to talk about their experiences. Gathering the children in temporary learning spaces is also a way for education officials to track and count the children as well as check on their health.

Typhoon Bopha (local name Pablo), struck Mindanao on 4 December, affecting more than 6.3 million people and leaving an estimated 2,000 dead or missing. More than 200,000 homes were damaged or destroyed.

According to the latest information from the Philippine National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council, 13,940 people were still in 87 evacuation centres, as of 25 December, while more than 900,000 were living in the ruins of their homes or staying with host families.

The storm, the strongest to hit Mindanao since records began, made landfall three times, triggering landslides and extensive flooding in the east of the island, particularly in the provinces of Davao Oriental, Surigao del Sur and Compostela Valley.

Challenges ahead

More than a month after the storm, electricity has yet to be fully restored, forcing many schools to rely on generators, while continuous rains are hampering clean-up efforts.

“The rain and the winds frighten the children. Some parents with very young children would rather not have their kids go to school at all,” said Gary Lara, principle of Boston Elementary School.

“It is really depressing to wake up every day and see the devastation and what used to be our homes in shambles around us."

On 8 January the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance (OCHA) reported an inadequate amount of psychosocial support on the ground to reach education workers and schoolchildren.

Many people have also expressed concern over the long-term effect the storm could have on education.

Teresita Canatra, a school teacher at the Central Elementary School in New Bataan, Compostela Valley Province, believes attendance may be lower among older children who may be compelled to look for odd jobs to help their families survive.

Typhoon Bopha also washed away cumulative records of a student’s academic performance.

“Even if the children go back to school, how will we know if we can promote our students to the next grade? What will they show to prove they completed certain school levels?” asked Canatra, one of 1,200 teachers affected by the storm. Her family was displaced and spent days in a nearby sports complex that served as an evacuation centre.

According to experts, children in crisis benefit from the sense of normalcy provided by going to school. Unfortunately, in many cases, educational facilities are destroyed. Recovery is slow and is also hindered by weak systems and infrastructure as well as insufficient funding for rapid disbursement, said a recent article by the Washington-based Brookings Institution.