Photos: In the Philippines, children ring in the new school year

The official reopening of schools is a positive step towards recovery in parts of the Philippines still struggling to cope with the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan.

As the morning sun rises over the ocean, the neighbourhood of San Roque is buzzing with activity. Children are bathing, having breakfast and preparing to go back to school – a big day just two months after Typhoon Haiyan tore across the country.

“Our school had 17 classes,” says Myra Salve, a teacher in San Roque. “Only one was left by the typhoon.”

Nine students from the school passed away, and Michel Lerios, 13, is still mourning the loss of one of the teachers, Ms. Lorna Roa Alamop.

“My teacher died in the typhoon. She was a second mother to me,” he says.

“When I saw the school destroyed two days after the typhoon, I didn’t lose hope,” says Ms. Salve. “I knew someone was going to help us. We will rise again.”


Michel Lerios, 13, arrives at San Roque school which was mostly destroyed.
© UNICEF Philippines/2013/Reyna


Starting to recover

For most of the children of San Roque, the traumatic experience of the typhoon is coupled with the aftermath: living in makeshift houses, temporary tents or evacuation centres. Returning to school means getting back to a routine and starting a process of recovery. For parents, it means having time to rebuild their houses and their livelihoods.

The Back to Learning campaign for 500,000 children in typhoon-affected areas has been organized under the name balik eskwela (‘back to school’ in the Waray language) and is led by the Department of Education and the Department of Social Welfare and Development, with the support of UNICEF and International and national NGOs and other local partners.

A ‘soft opening’ of schools took place on 2 December for schools that were ready to start informal classes. Since December, UNICEF has begun providing learning and recreational materials for 500,000 children, putting in place 3,000 temporary learning spaces, and water and sanitation facilities for 1,000 schools.

“I am happy to go back to school. Education is important because it teaches us to read, write and respect others,” says Rhonalyn Grabillo, 13.

Michel also appreciates the value of education for his future. “Going to school is important because you make friends and it helps you to find a job,” he says.

San Roque elementary school is now composed of two tents and six makeshift classrooms. Before the typhoon, the school had 750 students and 16 teachers. At the official back-to-learning, just over half the pupils showed up. Many of them have gone to other places like Manila and Cebu.

Protective environment

The benefits of education in crisis-stricken and post-crisis societies are far-reaching. During emergencies, children in school can be cared for in a protective environment. By reestablishing a daily routine and helping to restore a sense of normalcy, schools like San Roque Elementary become therapeutic spaces in the midst of destruction. They help families get back on their feet by allowing parents space to organize their lives.

For Marites Larios, Michel’s mother, this is an important fact. “No matter how strong was the tragedy we have gone through, our children need to be back in school,” she says. “Education is the only inheritance we can give them. I want Michel and my other children to study. I don’t want them to go through the hard times I went through.”

Education is a powerful tool for positive change. For Rhonalyn, Michel and the other students, it´s also the beginning of a future of hope and opportunity.

By Diana Valcarcel

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