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Time for class: back to school after Ondoy

children at school
© UNICEF Philippines/2009/Andy Brown
Children wave their hands in the air during an early morning assembly at Pinagbuhatan Elementary School, on their first day back after the floods.

How UNICEF Philippines is helping children back to school after the Tropical Storm Ondoy 

On Monday 26 October, Pinagbuhatan Elementary School opened for the first time following the devastation caused by Typhoon Ketsana, known locally as Tropical Storm Ondoy. It was the last school to reopen in the Pasig City area of Metro Manila. For children who had been through the stress of losing their homes and in some cases loved ones to the floodwaters, it was a welcome return to normality.

Exactly a month earlier, Tropical Storm Ondoy slammed into Manila, one of the most densely populated urban centres in the world, deluging it with 18 inches of rain in 12 hours and flooding 80 per cent of the city. Over 600 people were killed and nearly 400,000 were forced to leave their homes and seek shelter in evacuation centres. In total, over 6 million people were affected by the typhoon and subsequent flooding.

The disaster had the biggest impact on children. Having their right to an education denied was in itself a distressing experience. “Children, especially here in the Philippines, usually spend around eight hours a day at school,” Arnaldo Arcadio, Education in Emergencies consultant at UNICEF Philippines, says. “After a disaster like this, they’re sent to evacuation centres and often they’re just sitting there all day with nothing to do. We know that has an impact on their psychosocial wellbeing.”

Arnaldo paid several visits to the evacuation centres and talked to the children there. “When we asked them how they feel, the children would say ‘I miss my teachers; I miss my class mates; I lost my school bag; I want to go back to school.’ These were the things that children said and felt,” he comments.

School kits

To help children cope during times of crisis, UNICEF supports temporary education in evacuation camps and provides materials to help schools reopen as soon as possible. This includes school kits for children and teachers and library sets for schools.

For the children at Pinagbuhatan Elementary School, one of the highlights of their first day back was collecting their new school kit. These come in a UNICEF backpack, which they can use as a school bag, and include pens, pencils, crayons, scissors, glue, a ruler and a notebook. They also get a pair of sandals each and a water jug.

“All our classrooms were damaged in the flood, along with the canteen and the clinic, and all the equipment was swept away,” Principal Iluminado Lerio says. “We sent teachers to the evacuation centres to continue lessons wherever possible.”

It took a month to repair and restock Pinagbuhatan Elementary School. Once it was ready, the next challenge was to let all the parents know they could send their children back. “We made announcements at the school, church and teachers houses,” Principal Lerio continues. “We are happy and surprised by how many pupils came back today and hope even more will come tomorrow. This will help them forget their distressing experiences.”

Principal Lerio is very grateful for the assistance the school has received. “UNICEF has helped us very much with books for the library and other things,” she says. “For the next semester, we will be opening on Saturdays and taking shorter holidays so the pupils can catch up by Christmas. We are explaining to parents that we need to do this to help the children prepare for their national achievement tests.”

Puppet master

Puppet show
© UNICEF Philippines/2009/Andy Brown
Arnaldo and colleagues conduct a puppet show for the children, to help them come to terms with their stressful experiences.

After a natural disaster like Tropical Storm Ondoy, UNICEF also provides psychosocial support for children to help them come to terms with their anxieties. This can take many forms, including drawing and role play. Arnaldo’s preferred method, however, is puppetry.

“Children love puppetry and are very receptive to it,” he explains. “So this morning, before the assembly, we talked to the children about their experiences and how they felt. We put all of that into the story of today’s puppet show and you could see that the children really enjoyed it.

“We also talked to the teachers about using the puppets later on to tackle health, nutrition, water and sanitation issues, especially for children who are still in the evacuation centres,” he adds. “Puppetry is a good medium not only to process emotions but also to teach kids about the right to education and risk reduction.”

Although the flood waters have receded from much of Metro Manila, some poorer areas on the lake side of the city are still underwater. Without proper drainage or sanitation in these areas, the risks to children have now changed from drowning to disease, including outbreaks of cholera.

UNICEF Philippines is continuing to work to restore children’s right to an education, whether they’re going back to school or are still in the evacuation centres. With school kits and psychosocial support, like those provided to Pinagbuhatan Elementary School, we are helping children across Manila to get back to a normal life as quickly as possible.

The author
Andy Brown is Senior Web Editor at UNICEF UK

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