21 December 2006, Makati City. The classroom is shattered, its roof and walls now no more than a mangled pile of debris. Only scores of sodden books on the ground indicate that the room was used to teach Grade 4 Filipino primary school children.
The destruction at Bato South Central Elementary School in the province of Camarines Sur was unleashed by the deadliest typhoon in living memory to strike the Bicol region in the eastern Philippines. The caved-in classroom is no isolated case, but represents the battering schools across this poor region have taken from the super-storm Reming.
“This is the strongest typhoon I’ve ever seen in my life. So many school rooms have been destroyed,” said Corazon Gasgas, a Grade 5 teacher at the Bato elementary school. “The trauma of this experience is hard to convey.”
In Albay - the province most affected by Reming - up to 90 per cent of all schools have been damaged, many beyond repair. Education for nearly one million children in the areas hit by Reming is now at risk, for the next several months, if not for far longer.
Gasgas has taught at the school for 21 years, and is due to retire next year at the age of 60. But she displays little joy in that prospect in the face of what she fears will be some wrenching educational consequences from the 30 November disaster.
“My concern is that education will be very affected,” said Gasgas. The school will reopen in January, but how many children will come? And with classrooms destroyed, where will we teach them?”
In Camarines Sur, just 70 per cent of children attend primary school, and of 10 who start, only four actually graduate. With many educational facilities now out of commission, attendance could plummet, at least in the short term, putting education out of reach for the majority of children.
“We need help. We need buildings to be reconstructed,” Gasgas says with conviction, pointing to the debris lodged in the corpse of a classroom.
For now, the school serves as an evacuation center for 60 families, hunkering down in the classrooms left untouched by the typhoon. This is the only evacuation center left in Camarines Sur as most people who first sought shelter after the typhoon have returned to what’s left of their houses to start rebuilding.
However, in Albay Province, thousands of families whose homes were buried in mud slides from the Mayon volcano or swept away by floods continue to live in schools that still have classrooms intact. Conditions at these evacuation centers tend to be tough. Families are packed into small spaces, hygiene and sanitation are awful, and food shortages loom. Roofless, caved-in classrooms are sandwiched between rooms sheltering sometimes up to 90 people. The scenes are surreal.
Classes in the Bicol region were suspended after the typhoon, but schools are set to reopen on 8 January. This deadline weighs on those who are sheltering in the schools, bad as living conditions there are. Families are uncertain of where they will be going, but believe the government will somehow re-house them.
Plans to build several tent cities for the homeless are in fact underway but even so, there will not be enough room for everyone. And even if there were, how can teaching resume at facilities buffeted by the typhoon?
“It’s a race against time because children need to restart their education fast,” said Colin Davis, Senior Programme Officer at UNICEF Philippines. “If they miss the exams this year, they will have missed an entire year.”
“If we can’t patch up or repair the schools quickly, we’ll recommend that tents be used to hold classes, and if we don’t have enough tents, then teachers will have to teach out in the open,” said Cedric Daep, with the Provincial Disaster Coordinating Committee in Albay.
Across Bicol, damage to schools has been estimated at $43 million, a fortune for a province with some of the highest rates of poverty in the Philippines, exacerbated by frequent typhoons and other natural disasters.
The bill doesn’t take into account all the educational materials that the storm decimated, both at children’s homes and in the schools themselves.
UNICEF will be providing tents, and school packs to students, containing vital items such as paper, pens and school books. It will also be supplying materials to repair and rebuild schools, but the rebuilding effort will take time.
It is unlikely that education will return to anything like normal before March, when the three-month school holidays start. The break provides a precious window of opportunity for school rehabilitation. But no one can say with any certainty what Bicol’s educational landscape will look like when the new school year starts in June.
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