Restarting School Crucial to Nepal Earthquake Recovery, Aid Groups Say
Chij K. Shrestha looked out on the town of Bandipur, Nepal, as the dust cloud was dispersing just after last month’s devastating earthquake. “The minute that cleared, I saw these houses just going down, one after the other,” he said. Twenty-two houses in all collapsed before his eyes.
The community learning center that Mr. Shrestha runs there, in the mountains about 90 miles west of Nepal’s capital city of Kathmandu, withstood the 7.8-magnitude earthquake on April 25, and is now serving as a shelter for several families who lost their homes, as well as a gathering place for children displaced from their houses and schools.
About 5,000 schools—or 1 in every 7—has been destroyed in Nepal, reports Save the Children, a nonprofit based in Washington. In the Gorkha district alone, where the epicenter occurred, about 90 percent of schools were demolished, affecting 75,000 children, the group says. Official government figures, which are still being tallied, are lower, but still substantial.
Such devastation could affect students’ educational opportunities for years to come, experts say.
Mr. Shrestha, a former vice president for World Education, a Boston-based nonprofit, who moved back to his Nepali hometown years ago, has been helping ensure the children are well-fed and cared for. One student recently said he was “craving milk, so I grabbed some milk and boiled eggs, and we played games with [the children],” said Mr. Shrestha. “Their parents were saying after that this was the first time they were seeing their children smiling.”
Bandipur has fared better than Kathmandu and many villages across the country, where an estimated 7,000 people have been killed. Within the country of 28 million people, about 1.7 million children are still in urgent need of aid because of the earthquake, according to the United Nations Children’s Fund.
For now, children’s basic needs—shelter, food, water, physical safety—are the top priority. But representatives from aid groups say that getting the education system going again for students is of the utmost importance as well.
“We work within the humanitarian system to re-establish school as soon as possible,” said Eric Eversmann, the senior director for basic education at Save the Children. “And we advocate for it to be sooner than anyone thinks is possible.”
The country has about 3.2 million primary-school-age children alone, according to UNESCO, and the Nepali government, which funds the majority of schools in the country, has said that classes should resume May 15.
Schools offer safety and a place for students “to get away from the hardship,” said Trevor Patzer, a co-founder of the Little Sisters Fund, a small nonprofit based in Nepal that supports girls’ education. “They can start focusing on the ABCs, and one, two, threes, instead of focusing on, ‘My house is destroyed.’ ”
Aid groups worry that young people without supervision are vulnerable to child labor, forced marriage, or trafficking. “People go to ravaged societies to target children, ” said Mr. Patzer.
Even if there is no physical school building, teachers and students can begin gathering outside or in tents or other undamaged buildings. “Get them together because when they’re together, they’re safe,” said Mr. Patzer.
Giving students a place to go also frees up their families to begin figuring out what to do next.
The United Nations has put out a flash appeal for $415 million from international donors, about $20 million of which will go toward immediate education needs, including setting up temporary learning spaces. Such spaces differ from regular schools in that students often come in shifts for just a few hours at a time. Rather than the typical school curriculum, students may learn about continued safety during aftershocks and how to determine if drinking water is safe. Teachers can also begin to address students’ psychosocial needs.
Many say that a saving grace of the earthquake was that it happened on a Saturday and just after the morning meal. Students were not in school, and many people were outside working rather than in their homes.
“So many children lived that would have not survived had it been on a school day,” said Helen B. Sherpa, the country director for World Education in Nepal.
Now, though, there’s another imminent risk: monsoon season, which generally runs from June to September. “Having the infrastructure for schools at that point is going to be really important because it’s not going to be blue skies all the time,” said Mr. Patzer.
“When the monsoon comes, it’s very difficult,” said Ms. Sherpa, who is originally from New Zealand but has lived in Nepal for more than 30 years. “We’re trying to get temporary classrooms as quickly as we can and get children back into that environment.”
As for when schools realistically will reopen, “I think it will be a rolling process as you get out to the more heavily affected areas,” said Mr. Eversmann. “But provided the physical space exists, and you can get supplies there, schools should be up and running within the month.”
However, the actual rebuilding of schools will take longer—some say between one and two years.
That’s frustrating to those working in development because the Nepali education system had made progress over the past decade, since the civil war there ended. School enrollment was up to 95 percent in recent years, according to the Education for All Global Monitoring Report.
“We were moving away from just access, on to [learning] outcomes, and now we’re back to the access problem,” said Ms. Sherpa. “A lot of progress over the years could be badly set back.”
The anti-child-labor work that’s gone on could backtrack as well. “Most children were in labor because they were out of school,” said Mr. Shrestha from Bandipur. “I’m afraid that some of these things may happen again for the children.”
Vol. 34, Issue 30, Page 7Published in Print: May 13, 2015, as School Restart Seen Crucial to Nepal Earthquake Recovery