Myanmar: Teachers and pupils struggle in temporary schools

YANGON, 6 November 2008 (IRIN) - Of the 4,000 schools damaged or destroyed when Cyclone Nargis hit the Ayeyarwady Delta in May, almost half have been restored.

However, according to Thierry Delbreuve, head of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), Myanmar: "Schools are being rebuilt but there are still 2,500 schools which need particular attention.

"These are still temporary schools. They need to be adequately equipped and buildings need to be constructed as some extensive damage has been done," he said.

Scores of schools were left with unusable latrines, while others reported widespread loss of school furniture, teaching and learning materials.

But despite the physical damage many have resumed classes, bringing a much-needed sense of normalcy to thousands of children.

At the Pyi Thar Yar primary school in the Ayeyarwady Delta, 56 students continue to hold classes in a temporary shelter, covered with little more than tarpaulin sheeting, while others are slightly better off. The primary school in the village of Hmaw bi, about 2.4km from Pyapon and also in the delta, has been up and running since June despite the fact that its building collapsed.

Currently housed in a local monastery, the school accommodates close to 250 children up to grade five.

"Can you hear me? Read the sentence I have written on the blackboard," Aye Min Latt, a fourth-grade teacher instructs the pupils. "We need to shout very loud for them to hear us. We are tired, but the children are tired as well," the 29-year-old teacher said.

There is no space for tables and chairs for the teachers, forcing them to sit alongside the students on long wooden benches instead. The only table has been put aside for the headmaster.

But while there may not be much space, the school has furniture, blackboards, and textbooks and materials provided by the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), Gate Way and other private donors.

Hmaw bi primary school is just one of 2,038 schools (1,519 in Ayeyarwady and 519 in Yangon) receiving UNICEF support, comprising roofing sheets, furniture and textbooks.

"UNICEF is only one agency with limited resources and human capacity. Addressing other schools is done by the government and other organisations," UNICEF's Myanmar education chief, Niki Abrishamian, said.

Cyclone trauma continues

Meanwhile, as agencies address the physical needs of the schools, psychological problems also need to be addressed.

Scores of children were badly traumatised by the storm and continue to need psychosocial support.

Nay Lin Tun, a 10-year-old third grader in Hmaw bi, still misses friends who perished in the storm. "I'm not happy in the school like before because I miss my friends," he said.

"Sometimes I call out their names by mistake," Aye Min Latt admits. "I try not to mention their names in the class," she said.

Many of the children in her class have lost interest in their studies.

"I have to repeat things many times to make them understand. Sometimes they just look at me with empty eyes without listening to me," she said.

The teachers are not immune. "When I see windy and rainy weather, I simply stop," Aye Min Latt said.

To cope, UNICEF, with the Ministry of Education, has prepared thousands of handbooks - including tips for teachers to help children better cope with the effects of the cyclone - to be distributed soon.

According to experts, getting children back into the classroom is viewed as critical to the long-term recovery of the cyclone-affected area.