NEW YORK, 14 January 2005 – Children in some of the areas affected by the Indian Ocean tsunami began returning to school this week even though the disaster destroyed or damaged over one thousand schools and killed thousands of teachers.
In hardest-hit Indonesia, preliminary government estimates of the number of severely damaged or destroyed schools ranged from 765 to 1151. In Sri Lanka, 51 schools were completely destroyed and an additional 100 were partially damaged. In the Maldives, 44 schools were destroyed or damaged – a huge percentage of the total. The tsunami’s impact on education was more minimal in Thailand, where fewer than 30 schools were damaged and very few destroyed.
Getting children back in class is essential for their recovery, UNICEF said, even if it takes place in tents and other makeshift arrangements.
“There is no better way of helping children regain some normalcy than to return to school,” said UNICEF Executive Director Carol Bellamy. “A learning environment allows children to be children again, it gives them a friendly space to escape from the nightmare they have endured. When a school opens in a disaster zone, everyone feels a sense of hope, including parents.”
Getting and keeping children in school is essential not only in emergencies, but to ensure a better quality of life for all children, Bellamy noted. This disaster represents a setback to countries that were making good progress with providing quality basic education for all children. Getting children back to school rapidly will minimise this setback, she said.
While schools officially opened following the seasonal break in India and Thailand this week, the governments of Sri Lanka, the Maldives and Indonesia are aiming to reopen schools in the affected areas by January 20, 25 and 26, respectively. (Some schools in Sri Lanka have already opened.
Near Banda Aceh, two schools supported by UNICEF opened Monday with 408 students. UNICEF staff on the ground said it was the parents themselves who asked that a school be rapidly established. “The opening of these schools is a powerful sign for people that life can begin again,” Bellamy observed.
Across Aceh, UNICEF is shipping in tons of educational materials, including 2,000 school tents, 2,000 school-in-a-box kits (each containing learning supplies for 50 students) and 2,000 recreation kits (each with sports and games for 50 children). These supplies will support the more than 100,000 school children and 4,000 teachers in the affected areas of Aceh.
UNICEF is also assisting the Indonesian government with the recruitment and training of 2,000 new teachers and the emotional recovery of teachers who survived the tsunami. According to authorities in Aceh, 1,592 teachers are dead or missing.
In Sri Lanka, where a few schools reopened on Monday, the destruction of classrooms has affected 71,928 children and 2,673 teachers. In addition, some 240 schools are still being used as temporary shelters for displaced families.
UNICEF is providing Sri Lanka’s Ministry of Education with school supplies, text books and teaching aids in support of the goal of getting all children in the affected areas back in a learning environment by January 20. UNICEF has already distributed 500 school-in-a-box kits that will be used by 40,000 children. An additional 3,200 kits are expected in Colombo today or tomorrow and will be dispatched immediately. UNICEF has also enlisted hundreds of community volunteers to clear affected schools of debris and has provided funding for public announcements informing families that children will be allowed to attend school without uniforms and birth certificates.
Bellamy noted that the resumption of schooling does not mean all children will immediately return to school. In India, where schools have opened in all but one of the affected districts, attendance is running as low as 30 percent. In the few schools that have opened in Sri Lanka, attendance is about 50 percent.
“This low attendance is because of the many children who died or were injured during the tsunami and because some parents, having lost so much, are not quite ready to send their children out of their immediate care,” Bellamy said. “These parents need assurance that their children not only will be safe in school, but will have the assistance they need to grow stronger. Our work is focused on trying to create the most positive environment to get kids back in school.”
In India, where national and local authorities have led a strong and swift relief effort, UNICEF is playing a supporting role, including the delivery of school supplies and sports equipment, the rebuilding of libraries, organizing play activities for children and training teachers to recognize the signs of distress and provide basic emotional counselling.
In Thailand, where most schools reopened on January 4, UNICEF is supplying children from the affected coastal provinces with cooking utensils, school materials, textbooks, uniforms, playground and sports equipment, and is also supporting the construction of temporary schools.
In the Maldives, UNICEF is assisting the government in the construction of 73 temporary classrooms to ensure students will be able to go back to school on January 25. UNICEF is assisting the Maldives government with cleaning school premises and ensuring adequate sanitation facilities. UNICEF has also supplied more than 150 school-in-a-box and recreation kits and distributed hundreds of boxes of crayons, clay, drawing paper, building blocks, puzzles, dolls, toy cars and balls.
In all the tsunami-affected countries, UNICEF is working to ensure that schools help parents as well as children, Bellamy said.
“The more that schools can provide for children’s needs – for food, uniforms, text books and psychological support – the more we can relieve the burden on families and allow them to focus on rebuilding their lives,” she said. “Schools are often the heart of a community, so this effort to get them up and running has real impact on the long-term recovery effort. For many people who are hurting, a busy schoolyard is the best medicine.”
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For interviews and other details, contact UNICEF press officers:
In New York: Kate Donovan 1-212-326-7452 In Sri Lanka: Martin Dawes + 977 985 10 40961 In the Maldives: Binita Shah + 977 985 107 4260 In India: Corrine Woods + 91 981 86 49088 In Indonesia: John Budd + 62 811 936 437 In Bangkok: Madeline Eisner + 66 1 701 4626 In Geneva: Damien Personnaz + 41 22 909 5716