Education – and educators – uprooted in Barbuda

More than two years after Hurricane Irma devastated the island, families are still picking up the pieces.

By Erica Vogel
Antigua and Barbuda. Children study
13 December 2019

ST. JOHN’S, Antigua and Barbuda – “Cover your heads and try to sleep. It’s going to be over soon. It’s going to be morning soon. We’ll get help.”

Gloria Cephas still remembers the words she used to reassure her children as Hurricane Irma slammed into Barbuda in September 2017. The category 5 storm – one of the strongest ever recorded – left a trail of devastation, uprooting families and devastating communities as it churned across the Caribbean.

When daylight came, Gloria could hardly believe her eyes.

“I didn’t know where [my house] went,” she says. “Everything was just gone. Everything I worked for was gone.”

Like thousands of other Barbudans, Gloria and her family were evacuated to the neighbouring island of Antigua. At first, the family stayed with a friend, and then at a hotel that served as a temporary shelter for Barbudans displaced by the hurricane. After moving a few more times, Gloria eventually found an apartment to rent. More than two years after Irma hit, she wants to move back but is living paycheck to paycheck, and there’s no family home to return to.

“The kids don’t want to go back. They’re always thinking about hurricanes. They get scared whenever they see lightning or hear thunder,” she says.

Antigua. A child plays in a classroom on the island of Antigua.
Khadalia Cephas, 7, plays in class at New Winthorpes Primary School on the island of Antigua, part of Antigua and Barbuda. Her family evacuated from neighbouring Barbuda during Hurricane Irma in September 2017.

Bethsheba Gray, a teacher at Holy Trinity Primary School, also had to evacuate. Teachers evacuating from Barbuda were offered counselling sessions, time off work to help them adjust to their new environment, and positions in schools. But no matter where they were placed, Barbudan teachers were asked to accompany their students to Return to Happiness, a series of counselling sessions hosted by UNICEF.

“There were activities [for children] – drawing, painting and so on – to help ease the stress and allow them to express themselves about what had happened,” Bethsheba says.

“Everything looked so strange”

Those who have returned to Barbuda have seen for themselves the devastation wrought by the storm.

“Some [teachers] didn’t have anything to come back to,” Bethsheba says. “[E]verything just looked so strange, so different.”

With the school destroyed, lessons took place in makeshift classrooms. And with space limited, classes were grouped together, stretching school supplies and forcing teachers to rethink lesson plans. Getting to school was also a challenge. Those returning found many of the roads were still blocked, while the temporary classrooms – and many homes – lacked water and electricity.

The school day has also shifted since the hurricane. With electricity still not fully restored to the island, the school day has been shortened by as much as 30 minutes a day to ensure students have enough light by which to complete their homework. The result is that they are deprived of valuable study time. Dark skies and heavy rains mean classes are sometimes dismissed even earlier.

In this together

Despite the multitude of challenges, some teachers say they were happy to return to Barbuda. Paula Henry, one of the first teachers to return after Irma, said the stress of being uprooted was making her physically ill.

“My blood pressure was fluctuating. I was stressed because of the new environment. I just wanted to be home with my family,” she says. “I felt much more stable…coming back home.”

Tulip Nichols, another teacher, says many students felt the same way. “I really felt a sense of happiness and joy and togetherness [when the children returned],” Tulip says. “They really worked together. They helped each other.”

Antigua. Two children study in a classroom after school.
James Gerald Jr., 13, and his sister, Jerrene, 11, study with a tutor after school on the island of Antigua, part of Antigua and Barbuda. The siblings evacuated to Antigua with their parents following Hurricane Irma in September 2017.

Back on Barbuda, recovery efforts have focused on increasing resiliency. The government has put in place stricter building codes, while homeowners are building concrete safe rooms to withstand future storms.

Barbuda. A man works on repairing the roof of a house.
A man helps to rebuild the roof of a relative's house on the island of Barbuda, part of Antigua and Barbuda. The roof was torn off during Hurricane Irma in September 2017.

But even as Barbuda rebuilds, school and home life remain disrupted. The new primary school hasn’t been fully repaired, and while classes have resumed on the island, younger students are still sharing facilities, including restrooms, with older students.

All this has left some families reluctant to return, for now, at least.

Although Bethsheba has returned to teach on Barbuda, she has decided for the moment that it’s better for her daughter to remain in Antigua. “I sent her to stay with her grandma, and I think that was the best thing I could do,” she says. “I want better for her. She’s already settled where she is, so I didn’t want to uproot her again and make her start from scratch.”


In recent years, residents of the 29 Small Island Developing States in the Caribbean have become among the most vulnerable people in the world to the effects of drought, storms and flooding – events that are increasing in intensity and occurrence because of climate change and a warming planet. Read UNICEF's child alert, Children uprooted in the Caribbean, to find out more.