OPT: Schools re-open to darker, colder classrooms
GAZA, oPt, 1 February 2008: When 374 government schools re-open their doors to a quarter of a million students returning from winter break tomorrow, parents, teachers and children will be hoping classrooms have heat and light.
"Even before the fuel cuts, power shortages meant that children were already cold in classrooms. And many rooms didn't have light simply because there were no longer any light bulbs in the market," said Saeed Harb, who runs schools in Rafah, Gaza's southernmost district. "Children are finding it almost impossible to learn, and you can see it in their failing marks."
On Wednesday, Israel's Supreme Court declared legal the reductions to the fuel and electricity supply of Gaza. For students, this could mean even colder classrooms and fewer classes.
Gaza relies on Israel for fuel to generate electricity and water. Israel has restricted the entry of everything but survival basics such as fuel, food and medicine into Gaza since June last year, when Hamas, which won elections in 2006, forcibly excised the Palestinian Authority from power.
In October, Israel cut energy supplies to Gaza's 1.4 million residents in response to militants firing rockets at the nearby Israeli town of Sderot, and on 17 January, with even more Qassams landing in Sderot, Israel shut off all energy sources.
Gaza's main power plant shut down three days later for lack of fuel, leaving households in large parts of the tiny coastal territory without light, heat or running water. Hospitals switched to emergency generators, cutting back on non-critical services. Raw sewage was released into the sea at a rate of 30 million liters per day. Israel has agreed to restore energy supplies to Gaza, but at far below the pre-June levels.
Ten-year-old Mo'men Abu Al Sadeq will be going back to Al Qasteena Basic School west of Gaza City. His school has no heaters, so students wear more sweaters. When there's no electricity, he and his school mates bang on the tables and chairs to make noise, he said, and then "I panic because I can't read well or do anything." When there's no electricity at home, his father buys gas light and candles so he can do homework. Power cuts can range from eight to 10 hours a day in his neighborhood, he said.
January's fuel cuts fell upon a population already reeling from months of closures and restrictions - a population, UNICEF Special Representative Patricia McPhillips stressed, predominantly made up of children. "Some 56% of Gazans are under 18 years old," McPhillips said, "and that means that children are bearing the brunt of restrictions, whether it is of food, fuel or school supplies."
Enrolment levels and test scores tell a story of deep decline, McPhillips said. Enrolment figures for grades 1-10 have dropped from a peak of 96.8% in 2000-2001, to 91.2% in 2006-2007. Learning achievement is plummeting. An UNRWA survey in its Gaza schools in 2007 showed that 66% to 90% of children in grades four to nine failed math, and 61% in grade eight failed Arabic.
"For months now we skipped classes that were heavy on energy consumption, such as IT or science labs, and extracurricular activities. We lack printing paper and chalk and our fax machines, printers, overhead projectors and photocopiers need spare parts," said Sana Al Taweel, principal of the Al Kahera Girls School in West Gaza. "You add up the cold, the dark, and the lack of materials, and basically, children are being robbed of an education."
Millions of dollars in construction and renovation projects on government and UNRWA schools have run aground because of restrictions on imports of cement and building material. Chris Gunness, the spokesman for UNRWA, which runs 214 schools in Gaza, said "The blocking of basic building materials by Israel into the Gaza Strip is dealing a devastating blow to our education programmes. More than half of UNRWA's overall budget is spent on education, as we believe that education is one important way to give hope to the next generation, offering a way out of aid dependency and grinding poverty."
"Palestinian students and teachers have demonstrated an enduring commitment to education. The surest road to development and security lies in well-educated and healthy children, and this is a collective responsibility," McPhillips said.
To respond to power shortages, UNICEF and partners are:
- Delivering safe drinking water to 220 schools each day once school re-opens on 2 February
- Providing emergency education supplies to make up for lack of resources in classrooms, partly due to restrictions on goods coming into Gaza since June 2007: 340 interactive maths and science teaching kits are already being used at 170 schools; and 150 school in a box kits (meeting needs of 80 children each), and 1,000 sets of notebooks (each set including 10 notebooks each) are being distributed now
- Constructing five 5-cubic meter stationary storage tanks, and three 1-cubic-meter mobile storage tanks for emergency use near water pumping stations
- Supporting sewage drainage in three districts in areas where sewage accumulated and is spilling into the streets
- Cleaning up four flooded pump station areas in sewage treatment facilities
- Visiting families with children who have chronic diseases that require reliable sources of energy (diabetes / asthma), and who were under considerable stress during the power cuts
- UNICEF is also distributing 100 recreational kits for children living in households hard hit by the power cuts
- After a Gaza City neighborhood was flooded with wastewater, UNICEF distributed 100 family water kits (each kit serves 10 families)
- Next week, UNICEF will provide 60 bicycles to help water facility staff monitor and operate water pumping stations; and protection kits (50 suits and 100 boots) for sewage facility staff.
- There are 622 schools in Gaza: 374 governmental; 214 UNRWA; and 34 private. Some 240,293 students attend government schools, 157,854 UNRWA, and 8,634 private.
- To cope with limited class space, the vast majority of government-run and UNRWA schools run double shifts, or two shorter shifts, one in the morning and one in the afternoon.
- Gross enrolment rates in basic education are falling, from a peak of 96.8% in 2000 to 91.2% in 2006-2007. Drop out rates are rising: in 2005/2006, those most affected were girls at secondary school level in the West Bank (3.12%) and Gaza (2.9%).
- In 2006, one in 10 children was stunted, up from 7.2 per cent a decade before. Stunting is higher overall in Gaza, with 13.2 per cent.
- The proportion of households with access to safe water has dropped by 8% since 2000. About two-thirds of households are not connected to a sewerage network and 70% to 80% of domestic wastewater is discharged into the environment without treatment.
- By 2007, 58% of Palestinians, or 2.2 million people, lived below the poverty line on less than US$2.50 a day. Of these, around half were living in extreme hardship on less than US$1.38 a day.
- Poverty is highest in Gaza where 70 per cent of people live under the poverty line compared to 56 per cent in West Bank and 19 per cent in East Jerusalem.
- Nearly 39 per cent of families, or 1.43 million people, have exhausted so-called coping mechanisms such as selling jewelry and land and reducing household expenditures.
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