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'School-in-a-box' kits bring glimmer of hope

Sri Lanka

Sri Lankan teachers are looking for sturdy shady trees to set up outdoor classrooms before lessons begin on Monday.

After tsunamis killed about 30,000 Sri Lankans on December 26, officials and Unicef workers were trying to get surviving children back to school.

But the massive waves triggered by the undersea earthquake destroyed 200 schools in coastal areas where 300,000 students were enrolled.

Unicef is sending the first consignment of 100 "school-in-a-box kits" to help teachers start a school anywhere - even under a tree. The kits contain pens, pencils, crayons, and puzzles that children can play during breaks.

"We must help children cope with their trauma by getting them back in school as quickly as possible," said Unicef chief Carol Bellamy during her visit to this tropical island of 19 million people. "Being in a learning environment gives children something positive to focus on, and enables the adults around them to go about the business of rebuilding with greater confidence," Ms Bellamy said.

The outdoor classrooms will be used when schools reopen on Monday, said Ratnasiri Medagama, chief adviser to the ministry of education.

"A good tree will be fine to start an open-air school in areas where we can't repair the building," said Mr Medagama.

"Some of the schools have just disappeared and some have collapsed," Mr Medagama said. "Those which are standing will need furniture and massive cleaning. But this is not going to stop us from restarting schools."

Sri Lanka has 10,000 schools across the country with 4.1 million pupils and boasts 98 per cent literacy and enrolment rates.

Ms Bellamy quoted a Sri Lankan mother: "For our traumatised, school will be the best medicine."

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