COLOMBO, 21 May 2007 (IRIN) - L. Arupragasam is a happy man. The head teacher has finally returned to his school which is located in Kalavanchchikudi division, Batticaloa district, eastern Sri Lanka. Last December, Arupragasam, along with 230 of his students had to abandon the school so it could be used as a shelter for about 2,000 displaced people.
Now, some six-months later, Arupragasam is back at work and the school is back in action. The principal is not simply pleased to be back in his office, but happy, too, that he has an additional 45 students.
"My school is my home and teaching these children again is more than a wish come true." Arupragasam said. "My school now also provides education to 120 internally displaced children in the evenings, and more parents are now enrolling their children, realizing the importance of education," the principal adds. "The war cannot stop the children from getting a decent education."
At the height of the violence between government forces and Tamil Tigers in the east over the past year, the education of at least 135,000 students in Batticaloa district alone was disrupted, according to the Batticaloa Divisional Secretary, S. Amalanathan.
"We had to close 324 schools in Batticaloa district to house people who were fleeing the fighting during the worst days," Amalanathan told IRIN. He said 86 schools still remain closed as they continue to shelter IDPs or because the security situation is poor.
Today, some 130,000 IDPs still remain in Batticaloa district, despite a reduction in violence, and according to Amalanathan, at least 30,000 of these are students.
In an urgent bid to get these children back to school again, UN agencies such as UNICEF have devised a two-shift school day at temporary buildings where local children attend school in the morning and IDPs in the afternoon.
"There has been a fantastic attempt in Batticaloa district to accommodate all children, although with shortage of space and materials, they were incorporated into host schools or displaced schools at different times," UNICEF Spokesperson, Gordon Weiss says.
Due to a shortage of teachers, UNICEF has also begun training 1,150 teachers in a consolidated syllabus and psychosocial support. The consolidated syllabus will help children who have missed classes to reach expected levels of academic achievement by the end of 2007, UNICEF says.
"The greatest problem we face is identifying schools that have adequate space or could accommodate additional afternoon shifts. The children from parts of Batticaloa West who were displaced in March were accommodated with their families in both Batticaloa and Paddiruppu education zones. These children have been identified in recent surveys and will be targeted in the 'back to school' campaigns," Weiss said.
UNICEF has identified immediate needs which include material support such as temporary learning structures, additional training for teachers, the strengthening of the capacities of local education authorities to plan and respond to emergency needs, and the strengthening of support for children who are missing classes.
The Inter Agency Standing Committee (IASC), in its latest report, says the schools that have been vacated by IDPs were in need of cleaning and repairs. "A total number of 86 schools in Batticaloa district are still temporarily closed and the local education authorities have requested a quick assessment on this. A lot needs to be done to clean up the mess in the vacated school buildings," the IASC said.
The principal of the Ramakrishna School, Arupragasam, told IRIN that when he returned to his school it was in need of immediate repairs and of desks and other furnishings.
"We have to locate tables, chairs and other material. The people had used some of them as firewood, and we had to clean a lot."
Agencies such as UNICEF have also begun providing supplementary feeding to children in Early Childhood Development Centers (ECDC) for IDPs in three zones in the Batticaloa district. They are also monitoring to check the quality and standard of Emergency Early Childhood Education (EECE) project work and to assess changes in the lives of children who are in such programmes.
The majority of the schools in Batticaloa district may have reopened and students are back in class, but many parents still fear for the safety of their children and wait outside the school gates till classes end, says Arupragasam.
"There is still a lot of fear" he says. "The situation was very bad last year, with bombs flying over schools and hundred of people running. Many parents still feel the situation can get out of control any day again," Arupragasam says.