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After the quake: For Mexico's children, 'back to school' means a chance to heal

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Ten days after a 7.1 earthquake rocked Mexico, many students – and parents – are eager for schools to reopen. But while reopening schools represents a welcome return to routine, it also means a return to ground zero.

A girl plays with her dogs in front of a collapsed building on Sept. 28 after an earthquake in Mexico City.
Nacho Doce/Reuters
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The 9- and 10-year-olds, all wearing matching sweater vests and cardigans, are sitting in a semicircle inside the A Favor del Niño primary school, talking. The subject is bravery.

“A lot has changed in our personal lives, and if you want to cry, that doesn’t make you any less brave,” their instructor tells them on a recent Thursday morning. “Even adults have been crying over this.” 

Ten days prior, a 7.1 earthquake rocked Mexico, leveling some 40 buildings here in the capital, including one primary school, and killing more than 330 people nationwide. Most of the city’s roughly 9,000 public and private schools remain closed, and officials say it could take up to two weeks before they’re given the all clear.  

Many students – and parents – are eager for schools to reopen. But there’s a catch: The quake hit at 1:14 p.m. on a Tuesday, while kids were in class. So while reopening schools represents a welcome return to routine, it also means a return to ground zero. In response, educators, principals, parents, and NGOs across Mexico City are exchanging materials on how to talk about the quake with their children, how to assuage fears – and how to get back to work.

Jesus Roldan, 6, offers a plate of food to a police officer on Sept. 29 next to a collapsed building in the Condesa neighborhood after an earthquake in Mexico City.
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“We knew that once kids returned [to school], their last memory here would be the quake,” says Noe Gonzalez, the co-director of A Favor del Niño primary school. Some 146 students evacuated from the 1940s-era building into a small concrete plaza on Sept. 19, then out a gate and up a hill to street level, trying to keep their balance as the ground undulated beneath their tiny feet.

“It’s important to close that emotional loop,” Mr. Gonzalez says of revisiting the quake on the first day back to school.

Restoring a sense of safety

Therapists' tents that have popped up in parks and at the sites where buildings collapsed speak to one way people are trying to do that, with counselors and psychologists essentially putting out their shingle and offering free services.

Ana Luisa, a domestic worker, watches her 6-year-old daughter Ana Maria coloring on large sheets of paper beside a therapist tent in Parque España, on a recent afternoon. She asked not to use her full name because she uses her employer’s address to enroll Ana Maria in a better public primary school. She ran to the school the moment the earth stopped shaking on the 19th and found her safe, but the days that followed have been tough.

“She won’t go to the bathroom by herself, she won’t go into any room by herself,” she says two days after the quake. Ana Luisa messaged her daughter’s teacher on Facebook for advice. “She told me to keep the news off when Ana Maria’s in the room and to avoid streets where buildings fell,” she says.

“Sometimes I worry the quake broke my daughter, too,” she says, wiping her forearm across her teary eyes. 

Still, says Dora Giusti, the chief of protection with UNICEF in Mexico, children are particularly resilient and adults can help children tap that inherent capacity for recovery when processing the events of that day. The organization has been working with teachers in the southern states of Chiapas and Oaxaca, where an 8.1 quake hit Sept. 7, to prepare them for the return of students. They’re also sharing materials on social media and with the government to help teachers and kids to deal with the disaster.

Toy animals stand on a window sill in a classroom on Sept. 21 as rescue workers participate in a search for students at the Enrique Rebsamen school after an earthquake in Mexico City.
Jose Luis Gonzalez/Reuters
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A key activity UNICEF encourages is helping kids design a plan for future earthquakes. “It helps them feel cared for, safe, and prepared,” Ms. Giusti says. 

At Al Favor del Niño, the courtyard is filled with laughter and happy screams during recess on the first day back. Kids kick rubber balls, gather around board games, and a few are busy tying their sweaters together in what appears to be an elaborate game of make-believe. 

“I’m so happy to be back,” says 10-year-old Carolina Garcia Guerrero. “I think that, even though my house isn’t in a bad state, I feel safer here at school,” she says. It’s “because my friends are here.”

The quake hit on the 32nd anniversary of Mexico’s 1985 temblor, which left thousands dead and flattened hundreds of buildings. “In some ways, it was a good day for an earthquake,” says Susana Vargas, a fifth-grade teacher. The entire school went through an earthquake drill earlier that morning.

“Yes, there were some students crying and panicking, but I was so proud to see that they knew exactly what to do,” she says, describing how they had their hands on their heads, protecting their necks, and were calm as they marched up the hill to their final evacuation point. 

Before reopening the school, the staff here came together to talk about their own experiences with the quake. “Some teachers cried, they expressed their fears. Then we started sharing material,” says Gonzalez, one of the school’s co-directors. 

That included a book, adapted from Chile, where quakes are also a regular occurrence. Some classrooms showed videos about the science behind temblors and Mexico’s susceptibility to them. The fifth-graders listened to a song about disasters and hope, and picked out their favorite lines to share with the group.

“And you will see how this world changes, when without fear you open your door at last, and keep your light on, however small,” one popular lyric read. 

A group of third-graders gathered after recess to receive letters of support and encouragement sent by children from across South America, also part of the Teach for All education network of which this Enseña Por Mexico school is part.

One student is overjoyed as she unscrolls a rolled-up letter, revealing a flag and the words “Fuerza Mexico,” or Stay Strong, Mexico. “Ohh, que lindo, [how beautiful],” a little boy cries out while unfurling his note.

Angela, whose face is framed by hot pink glasses and missing front teeth that reveal her age, says that the cards were written “so that we won’t feel sad or scared.” Asked if it’s helped, she says yes.

“Don’t worry, everything will be OK,” says 9-year-old Emiliano Garcia Barrera, sharing his advice for other kids who might experience something similar. “Sooner or later, your fear will pass,” he says, noting that he was very scared, but didn’t cry.

“It won’t last all your life. And if you can make jokes and laugh, it will help you a lot.”

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