A decision to re-open schools in flood-hit northern Mindanao is being cited as key to re-establishing normality even though there are still huge challenges.
"It is better to be in school rather than doing nothing in the evacuation centres. Going to school establishes a sense of normality amid this crisis," Department of Education (DepEd) regional director Luz Almeda told IRIN, referring to the 3 January opening.
"In times of disaster when many things have been rendered dysfunctional, showing that the education system is functioning again sends a positive message," Yul Olaya, an education officer with the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), agreed.
Tropical storm Washi pummelled northern Mindanao island, including the cities of Cagayan de Oro and Iligan, on 16-18 December, with flash floods as high as 4.3m washing away schools and damaging or destroying close to 52,000 homes.
According to government estimates, damage to infrastructure, agriculture and school buildings now exceeds US$30 million.
More than 1,250 people died in the storm, while 176 are still missing, the country's National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (NDRRMC) reported on 10 January.
Some 24,500 people are still in 55 evacuation centres, many of them schools, down from almost 70,000 at Christmas time.
More than 200,000, however, are still staying with relatives or in makeshift shelters.
Figures released by the DepEd indicate that 49 schools in Cagayan de Oro and Iligan were damaged or used as evacuation centres, with two schools in Iligan City completely washed away by raging floodwaters.
At home in school
More than one million people were affected by Washi, which triggered flash floods and landslides and forced tens of thousands to seek shelter in evacuation centres.
Three weeks on, the basic needs remain shelter, food, water and sanitation/hygiene as well as health and psycho-social services, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).
Among those displaced, 2,742 families took shelter in 10 schools, according to Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) welfare officer Primitio Rufin.
"We could not make them leave while we are still building alternative relocation sites for evacuees," said Rufin.
To cope, classrooms are being shared between evacuees and students. "The classrooms are used in the daytime by the students while the evacuees stay in the gym or covered courts. After classes, the evacuees go back to the classroom to sleep," Rufin explained.
In schools with large open fields, temporary tent cities have been set up.
"As of today, it is still a very small number of displaced who have been effectively relocated," admitted Araceli Solamilla, regional director of the DSWD. "But we're working as fast as we can so that we can have the evacuees moved from the schools by the end of the month."
"We are continuously identifying areas suitable for relocation. But assessment and of course, building of permanent shelters, will take time," Solamilla added.
The DSWD hopes to have 70-80 percent of the displaced successfully relocated by end-March.
Various aid and development agencies had to scramble to clear classrooms and make repairs in time for the 3 January opening, while incentives such as free backpacks with school supplies were given to children on opening day to entice them back to school.
On its fourth day of opening, the DepEd reported a student turnout rate of 42 percent in elementary and 16 percent in high schools in Cagayan de Oro.
But they hope this will steadily increase as other issues preventing the children from returning to school are addressed.
"Some of the children don't want to come to school because they have no uniforms. So many were left with nothing," Myrna Motomall, a DepEd school superintendent for Cagayan de Oro City, explained.
According to OCHA, initially, the agencies' aim was to help some 34,000 affected school-children in Cagayan de Oro and Iligan with early childhood care and development and basic education, strengthening child rights and protective mechanisms in learning institutions and enhancing capacities of teachers to conduct psycho-social support.
It has now been established that the number of children needing education assistance surpasses 210,000, 60 percent of whom are in Cagayan de Oro and Iligan cities.
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This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions