Bieber puts spotlight on disaster zone schools

Trying to get back to normal: These schoolgirls are making the best of their makeshift classrooms.
 
By Denis McClean

TACLOBAN, 13 December 2013 – Pop idol Justin Bieber paid a surprise visit to the San Jose Elementary School in Tacloban this week. He stayed about 30 minutes, hugged the kids, sang a few songs, signed some autographs and landed on the front pages of all the Philippine newspapers.

If nothing else, his visit brought a spotlight to bear on the precarious lives of thousands of children with no school to go to for the last four weeks. Over 600 schools were destroyed by Typhoon Haiyan.

Despite a government instruction for classes to re-open on December 2, many, such as the Anibong Elementary School overlooking the ship-strewn shoreline of the neighbourhoods known as barangays 68 and 70, remain packed with evacuees.

Vice Principal Jovita Mantua left her home, which was destroyed by the storm, for the safety of the school 20 metres away. Out of 1,540 pupils enrolled at the school they have so far only been able to contact 693.

She is fearful that a number of them died in the storm surge as many lived in barangays where they had a false sense of security based on previous experience of typhoons which usually bring wind and rain to this area. They lived in concrete homes thought by their parents to be sufficiently elevated to be out of harm’s way.

Three classrooms collapsed in the typhoon’s full onslaught but nobody died at the school. Mrs. Mantua believes it could have been much worse if they had not been sheltered from the wind and storm surge by the large cargo ships which were beached on the shore opposite the school.

She hopes the school will re-open in January but is at a loss to explain how that will happen if no alternative shelter is available for the evacuees. Only a small number of them are moving out, either to other towns or to build “temporary” shacks in the “no-build” zone declared by the government.

So, classes have not resumed in Anibong though they are slowly beginning in other places where temporary learning spaces have been created often supported by UNICEF’s school-in-a-box concept. It also remains to be seen what the take-up from evacuees will be on the 375 bunkhouses which are expected to be built in the disaster zone between now and Christmas.

In short, it’s a familiar scenario identified by schoolchildren from disaster zones around the world who drew up the Children’s Charter for Disaster Risk Reduction two years ago.

On the other side of town, in barangay 54, one of the city’s largest schools, the San Fernando Central School, did not so much open its doors this week as pull back the canvas flaps on its new classrooms following a sweep through all the evacuation centres in search of their 2,591 pupils.

San Fernando is a microcosm of chaotic but resilient post-Haiyan life. They have managed to make contact with 850 pupils. Classes are starting slowly on a shift basis, mornings and afternoons.

Grade five pupils returned on Wednesday. They got a warm welcome from the Principal Imelda Gayas and her staff. Some of them are still timid and traumatized by what they have endured. At least 15 pupils are known to have died.

The makeshift classrooms occupy the central schoolyard which was cleaned up relatively quickly. It is lined by collapsed classrooms. Those fit for habitation are occupied by families from the neighbouring fishing settlement who are lucky to be alive given the high drama which ensued here in the dawn hours of November 8 as trees crashed down on classrooms and the sea broke through the perimeter wall.

The evacuees are uneasy about the fact that as many as 30 people are believed to be buried underneath the rubble of two classrooms in one part of the school where someone has erected a macabre scarecrow in uniform as though to warn off evil spirits. Some 3,000 bodies have been recovered in Tacloban so far but body bags are still being collected on a regular basis.

Mrs. Gayas estimates the damage to her school to be in the region of five million pesos (US$1.1 million). She is fortunate that one corner of the school has been taken over by the ABS-CBN TV network and work is proceeding there on five brand new classrooms made out of concrete. However, many other things are lacking including desks and basic school materials.

In the meantime, the girls of Grade Five are happy to be back even if Justin Bieber did not pay them a visit.
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