Print Edition - 2015-05-14  |  Oped

Building safer schools

  • With so many schools damaged or destroyed, the education of tens of thousands of children will be affected
- Mattias Bryneson
Building safer schools

May 13, 2015-Whenever school resumes in Nepal, thousands of children will not be able to join in. In severely affected districts, almost 20,000 schools have been severely damaged or destroyed, according to the Department of Education. That means that tens of thousands of children might not be able to return to school with the rest of the country’s students.

Losing your school is about so much more than just losing a school building. Getting their children back to school is a matter of urgency for parents and as children have been through a traumatic experience in the past couple of weeks, schools are an essential place to continue their healing.School gives kids a place to play with their friends, and be themselves again.

But even more crucial is one simple word: education. Education is the key children need to unlock a future of potential and possibility. And by so doing, they unlock the potential of Nepal.

But when a school is closed, the risk grows of children dropping out. Their education may be interrupted, and they may even leave school permanently. And children are at increased risk of exploitation and trafficking when schools are closed.

Retrofitting schools

Several years ago, Plan International in Nepal recognised the risks that disasters—particularly earthquakes—pose to schools and has been working with partners to take action. Working with partners, we began our Safe Schools programme and have worked to minimise those risks. Last year, we began ‘retrofitting’ 22 existing schools, 11 of which were complete before the earthquake.

But what is retrofitting? Simply, it means to find existing schools that can be strengthened to standards designed to withstand a major earthquake. It means, among other things, that the foundations are strengthened and a network of interlocking iron bars are built into the walls. These jackets of iron not only strengthen the schools significantly, they allow the building to flex a little—so that they bend with the power of an earthquake instead of fatally snapping or cracking. This is the same principle architects use when they design state-of-the-art skyscrapers to withstand earthquakes in cities like Tokyo.

One such school lies just outside of Hetauda. The retrofitting there finished late last year and now its bright green walls hide a jacket of iron bars inside the walls, and sits atop significantly strengthened foundations. When the earthquake struck last month, the teachers were unsure if the school still stood. After the initial shocks of the earthquake, the teachers returned to the school and saw that it was still standing. In fact, the school stood exactly as it had before the earthquake. The teachers were delighted.

And so, too, are the hundreds of students depending on the school for their education. This week, those children will be returning to school to resume their education. Even today, they gather to play cricket on the school’s grounds.

This is, of course, a good news story. But there so many tragic stories of schools—and dreams—wrecked by the earthquake. We need to heed the lessons of this disaster and continue to build more ‘safe schools’. We must ensure that the new schools that replace the old are built to safe school standards. And we must ensure that the undamaged schools still standing are retrofitted to the same standards as the school in Hetauda.

Think of the children

The safe schools programme is also about more than construction methods. It includes working to incorporate children’s perspectives into building a curriculum that includes how to respond to an emergency and understand hazards, and effect change.

Thousands of schools need to be rebuilt, and they must be rebuilt using disaster resilient construction methods that ensure that the structures can resist future disasters, whether earthquakes, landslides, or flooding.  Students, teachers, and parents need to know that children can go to school and expect to be safe. There are many thousands of schools in Nepal, and this will be a mammoth undertaking in a country that is only just starting to rebuild.

It is not just the school buildings that are depending on our vigilance. It is the opportunity and dreams of so many thousands of young children, whose education and future is at stake.

Bryneson is Country Director of Plan International Nepal

Published: 14-05-2015 09:40

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