Tuesday, 10 January 2017

Back to School in Pidie Jaya

By Cory Rogers, Communication Officer

Second grade students study in an education tent set up days after the 6.5m earthquake tore through three regencies, killing hundreds and displacing thousands in north western Aceh Province © UNICEF Indonesia / 2017/ Cory Rogers

Pidie Jaya, Aceh: The crack starts near the door and cuts to the back wall through dusty tiles, a distance of some six or seven metres.

Considering the wreckage just a stone’s throw away – where homes lie in ruins, schools in piles of debris – the crack, which teachers at MIN Pangwa Islamic elementary school describe as the worst of the earthquake damage, might seem almost trivial.

But to Rajwa, 10, a fifth grade student, it is a kind of trigger -- a frightening reminder of an event that killed two of his classmates and forced his family from their home for weeks.

Rajwa outside MIN Pangwa © UNICEF Indonesia / 2017/ Cory Rogers

“I don’t want the earthquake to come back,” Rajwa says. “I don’t want to see the crack, I don’t want to go in there.”

Now, thanks to a tent supplied by the National Disaster Mitigation Agency (BNBP) on 27 December, Rajwa doesn’t have to.

Like students at some 200 schools across the three affected regencies, Rajwa will use the tent as a learning space as he awaits repairs to his classroom. It is a recovery initiative grounded in the belief that in times of disasters, education rises in importance.

A schoolteacher assists a child in one of two BNBP-supplied tents that allow students to keep learning as their damaged classrooms are repaired. © UNICEF Indonesia / 2017/ Cory Rogers

“Children don’t need education even in emergencies; they need education especially in emergencies,’’ UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake has said. Indeed, research shows that in times of crisis, schools provide structure and routine that helps kids cope with fear, loss and stress.

With this in mind, the Government -- partnering with an array of organizations, including UNICEF -- has launched “Ayo Kembali Ke Sekolah”, a back-to-school campaign that seeks to achieve full attendance at schools by early January. At MIN Pangwa, teachers say attendance has reached about 70 per cent.

Down the road at SDN Peulandok Tunong, however, and teachers say students have been showing up for weeks.

“All but two of our 93 students are back today,” says Ibu Wardiah, deputy principal of the elementary school. A crop of second-graders practice reading clocks behind her, their last lesson of the day.

The school, which sits three kilometres down a narrow, paddy-fringed road, collapsed in the earthquake, making it one of the first to receive a tent on 11 December by the Ministry of Education. A second tent has since been set up by the BNBP to house more learning activities.   

 Ibu Wardiah, (far left) and fellow SDN Peulandok Tunong teachers gather outside a tent supplied by UNICEF to the Ministry of Education. Theirs was one of the first schools to reconvene in the early days after the earthquake. © UNICEF Indonesia / 2017/ Cory Rogers

The school’s close-knit crew of teachers saw the tents were key to helping children recover, so they went about organising fun and games with the help of local NGOs. On one memorable afternoon, volunteers came to teach kids a song about surviving earthquakes, a song students now know by heart.

“This is my village, these are my children,” said Ibu Wardiah, who has been teaching at the school for over 30 years. “We don’t know if other schools are like this, but we know ours is,” she said proudly.

Only on 2 January did teachers begin using the formal curriculum, “because in the end, reading, counting and writing -- these are the crucial things we have to teach our children,” Ibu Wardiah explained.

In locations where schools were damaged beyond repair, semi-permanent structures like this one at SDN Peulandok Tunong are being built by government contractors to replace tents. These temporary classrooms will allow children to study in a safer, more comfortable setting as they await the construction of their permanent facilities © UNICEF Indonesia / 2017/ Cory Rogers.

According to head of the Pidie Jaya Department of Education Pak Saiful, other schools have struggled to replicate SDN Peulandok Tunong’s attendance success, partly because parents are still worried about safety; it was not lost on them, he said, that schools experienced some of the worst damage.

“We must ensure new schools are quake-resistant,” he said, blaming poor design and construction. “This cannot happen again.”

Poor construction lead to damage like this at SDN Peulandok Tunong, seen here just days after the quake. © UNICEF Indonesia / 2017/ Yusra Tebe

According to UNICEF Indonesia Programme Assistant Said Ikram, “in Aceh it’s been lucky that the big earthquakes happened either before children arrived at school or after they went home. This earthquake has opened the eyes of people in Pidie Jaya about building safer schools."

With UNICEF’s assistance, authorities are still determining how many schools will need to be rebuilt. In the meantime, getting tents up and semi-permanent classrooms built will continue to be Pak Saiful’s top priority.

“We still have a need for 37 tents [as of 3 January], “he said. “My focus this month is to get as many students [as possible] back in school so they don’t fall behind for the national exam,” he said. The exams, scheduled for the spring, determine whether students are able to advance to the next grade.

Despite the test's importance, teachers at MIN Pangwa say it will be crucial to ease students back to normalcy at their own pace.

“For example, we usually let the students go at 12pm, but today let’s see how it goes,” said one schoolteacher who preferred not to be named. “Many [children] are still dealing with trauma, so it is important we don’t push, that we remain flexible,” he added.

For his part, Rajwa says he is excited to start learning again, scary cracks notwithstanding. He dreams of becoming an Army soldier, and says school will help him get there.

“We’ve been out of school so long,” he said, eyes darting to the ground in front of him. “I’m still scared sometimes, but coming here makes me happy.” 

Students at MIN Pangwa line up to buy cheap sticks of a lunchtime beef sausage known as sosis © UNICEF Indonesia / 2017/ Cory Rogers