In a clearing on the hillside of Sindhupalchowk, central Nepal, Kamall Sapkota sat with his family and 500 members of his community under a huge tent.
Surrounded by the debris of their destroyed homes, they remained huddled there for three days, too afraid and too cramped to sleep.
Rubble and landslides had worsened their predicament, making many roads impassable and delaying the arrival of assistance.
“I was frightened to leave the clearing,” said Mr Sapkota, principal of Kalika Secondary. “But it was my duty to check the condition of my school.”
Two of the three school buildings lay in ruins following a 7.8 magnitude earthquake, almost exactly a year ago. One of the buildings had been built using funds raised by the local community, and had opened only the day before.
“When I saw the damage to my school, I was so worried,” said Mr Sapkota. “I thought, ‘How will I bring the students together? How will I teach them? How will I create a safe environment for my students and teachers?’ ”
Almost one-million children were unable to return to school in the aftermath of the earthquake that hit Nepal on 25 April last year, killing more than 8,000 people and injuring a further 21,000. It was estimated that more than 90 per cent of schools were destroyed in the severely affected districts.
In Sindhupalchowk, Mr Sapkota learned that three of his 450 students had died in the earthquake. Although his 14 members of staff were unharmed, all of their homes had been damaged or destroyed.
“If the earthquake had not occurred on a Saturday afternoon when most people were outside, the situation would have been very different,” he said.
The principal saw his community physically and mentally broken and knew that something had to be done. Under a tarpaulin on the site of the ruined school, he gathered parents and children to share their experiences and difficulties, and talk about what had been lost. “Prolonged interruption to education can have a huge impact on children’s futures,” he said. “I needed to instil the safety of routine to break the earthquake mentality.”
On every day except Saturday, Mr Sapkota gathered children and adults to play games for three hours. This focus on play and learning through games was adopted by many teachers living in earthquake-affected areas as, without their normal classroom materials – and their classrooms – they were unable to rely on textbooks.
Sad and distracted
It was also crucial, firstly, to address the mental health of pupils, many of whom had not only lost their homes but also family, and were subdued and afraid.
“Once we had convinced parents that it was safe for children to come and learn under the tarpaulin, we found the children were unable to concentrate,” says Yamuna Shrestha, a Year 1 teacher at Kalika (pictured, inset).
“They were so sad and distracted, so for months we tried different programmes like singing, dancing, drawing and making things. The pupils were more engaged and encouraged to do things, and seeing my pupils engaged encouraged me, too.”
However, persuading parents to let their children return to school was a major challenge. Given the devastation caused by the earthquake, and the panic that resulted from numerous aftershocks, they didn’t believe that their children would be safe.
“I went and spoke to the parents in my community and begged them not to keep their children away from school,’” said Ms Shrestha. “Before the earthquake, all children walked to school alone, but I told parents to bring them. I thought this would comfort them as we had all suffered and needed reassurance.”
Ram Kumar Sapkota, a maths teacher at Kalika, added: “Trying to return to a normal teaching day is difficult. When aftershocks come during class, it can be very disruptive as the students become frightened. Last month, we felt a strong aftershock and my students ran from the classroom, and one child was injured. We had to close the school for the rest of the day. No one could concentrate.”
Teachers in the disaster zone have been under the added pressure of getting pupils’ learning up to speed for exams. “There was no real curriculum study for months due to the breaks and dealing with children’s mental health,” said Ms Shrestha. “But the ministry of education said these exams must take place.”
Approximately 25 children who studied at Kalika prior to the earthquake have not returned and the teachers worry about how to reach them. “Their homes were destroyed, so they have had to move to another community and I’m concerned their education has just stopped,” said Ms Shrestha. “I worry for them, for their mental health and their future.”
To donate to the World Vision Nepal earthquake appeal, visit bit.ly/Earthquakeappeal
Temporary learning centres (TLCs), built in a clearing in front of Kalika Secondary by international children’s charity World Vision in September, enabled teachers and students to regain some sense of normality.
Training provided by the charity has also been hugely successful in reassuring students that they will be safe in the bamboo structures during aftershocks. “The children tell us they want to stay at school as they feel safer here than at home,” says Year 1 teacher Yamuna Shrestha. “Often, during a big aftershock, this is where students run to.”
However, the TLCs are not without their problems. They are overcrowded during lessons, and the divisions between the classrooms do not reach the roof, causing major disruption as the noise from each classroom pours into the others.
Teachers are concerned about the arrival of the monsoon season, expected in June, as the effects of heavy rains are already being felt, with rainwater soaking into classroom floors and causing noise on the corrugated iron roof. Earthquake-resistant permanent structures are urgently needed.