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For Nepal's kids, earthquakes break school rhythms (+video)

April's deadly tremor left around 1 million Nepali students without classrooms. And today's magnitude-7.4 temblor has further shaken efforts to restore the country's education system.

This week, Nepal was hoping to register another step toward normalcy.

Three weeks after the country was ravaged by a magnitude-7.8 earthquake that killed more than 8,000 people, children were set to return to schools Friday to resume their interrupted education.

But a major new quake today, reaching magnitude 7.4, has thrown those plans back into disarray.

The fresh jolt has severely dented the confidence of parents already hesitant to let their children out of their sight, putting new pressure on educators to find ways to get children back on track.

The government says the first quake last month destroyed around 15,000 classrooms, which, according to UNICEF, has left about 1 million children without classrooms to return to. And after Tuesday’s quake, another assessment is needed of the condition of school infrastructure in affected districts, says Education Ministry spokesman Hari Lamsal. “The school closure will be extended for another week or two.”

Tuesday's quake – technically classified as a strong aftershock – cemented already deep fears in both children and parents.

“My children ask me whether there will be any more aftershocks. I tell them lies and pretend to be unafraid. But the reality is I don’t know the answer myself and I’m as scared as they are,” says Anita Basnet, who runs an apparel store in Dhumbarahi district of Kathmandu, and whose husband works in the Indian Army.

Ms. Basnet’s ancestral house in Gorkha, the epicenter of the April 25 quake, is now a heap of rubble. And she won't send her 5th-grade son and 7th-grade daughter to school until she is absolutely confident that there won’t be any more tremors. “Life is the only priority,” she says.

Shattered classrooms

But it is not just the concerns of parents and children that are hampering a return to the classrooms. The schools themselves have been heavily damaged by the quake.

Worried that prolonged closure of schools would have a long-term impact on children, the government last week asked schools damaged by the first quake to build temporary classrooms and resume classes from May 15. UNICEF has expressed concerns over any possible setbacks to Nepal's progress over the last 25 years in increasing primary school enrollment from 64 percent in 1990 to more than 95 percent now.

But the mass exodus of nearly a million internal migrants from Kathmandu to rural areas in the aftermath of last month’s quake has caused a shortage of manpower that is hampering rebuilding efforts.

At the Madan Smarak Higher Secondary School in Kathmandu’s neighboring Lalitpur district, efforts to construct classrooms of bamboo walls and tarpaulin roofs are taking place at a snail’s pace.

“Children are too scared to study inside the concrete school building because of ubiquitous cracks. They will feel safer in these bamboo classrooms. We need to build 18 such classrooms. But there are just two of us, and a single classroom is likely to take us ten days to build,” says Bal Krishna Khadgi, a builder. 

The classroom Mr. Khadgi is building can accommodate 80 students.

Low attendance

Bucking the trend, the Universal Higher Secondary School in Kathmandu opened its doors on Monday. Five classrooms in this school were destroyed by the quake, but space constraint wasn’t immediately a problem because the student attendance on Monday and Tuesday was just 35 percent, according to school principal Bijay Kharel.

“Many parents, especially those of small children, aren’t ready to part with their children. Some children have lost their parents. I think it will take months for school attendance to reach a hundred percent,” Mr. Kharel says.

Many students have deep fears of earthquakes: Kathmandu and its vicinity had witnessed until yesterday more than 160 aftershocks of magnitude 4 or more, according to National Seismological Center.

“I attended school yesterday. But I am scared that another earthquake could happen,” says Shrawan Karen, a second grader at the school.

To allay such fears, first and second graders were being entertained with songs and dances in the school classroom Tuesday morning.

But the 7.4-magnitude quake later in the day put a stop to that. “Now we are closing the school until the government issues a fresh notice to reopen,” Kharel said after Tuesday’s quake.

Entertaining the children

Despite ongoing quakes, activities to boost the morale of children are being conducted in many open spaces where people who lost their houses have been living since last month.

In Tudikhel, a public park in central Kathmandu, UNICEF and local non-governmental organizations are running child-friendly spaces where children spend time making drawings, singing, and dancing. Many have no idea if and when their schools will reopen. 

“I have been living here with my parents since last month’s quake,” says Saroj Giri, a second grader. “I don’t know when my school will reopen. I even don’t know whether it exists anymore,” he says.

Anish Hamal, a fifth grader, says he will go to school only after the quakes stop.

Such child-friendly spaces are also being set up in tent camps, says Dipa Kharkwal of Seto Gurans, a non-governmental organization focused on children's development.

“The educational entertainment that we are offering will hopefully help them forget the quakes and be ready to go to schools when they reopen,” she says.

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