By Marge Francia
CAGAYAN DE ORO CITY, Philippines, 25 January 2012 – In City Central School, in Cagayan de Oro City, two teachers recently held their first day of classes since the devastating floods that swept through their community – even as their own futures looks uncertain.
Vivian Benedictos and Marilou Gambuta, co-teachers and best friends, share a first-grade classroom at the school. It is a space they not only teach in, but now also live in.
Escaping the floods
When Tropical Storm Washi (locally known as Sendong) tore through the city in December, it unleashed a deluge that wiped out whole communities, including Ms. Benedictos’s and Ms. Gambuta’s. But by working together, they managed to save both their families from the rushing floods.
“I could hear that the water was already behind us,” said Ms. Gambuta. “I didn’t want to look back because I knew I wouldn’t find my house there anymore. I covered my ears because I could hear my neighbours screaming for help.”
As soon as her family was out of harm’s way, she called Ms. Benedictos, warning her to flee before the floodwaters descended on her town.
“When I heard from Marilou, I started to panic and shout. I told people, ‘let’s go,’ but my neighbours didn’t believe me,” said Ms. Benedictos. “The water started to rise, and I got out of the house. My sister and my children stayed on the second floor, thinking they would be safe there, so I had to go back and get them. By the time we left the house, the water was already chest-deep.”
After escaping the floods, the teachers were reunited in their classroom. It has been their home – and their families’ home – ever since.
Schools help children heal
Others were not so lucky. Among the estimated 1.1 million people affected by the disaster, 6,071 were injured and 1,257 killed. According to recent Department of Education figures, at least six education personnel and more than 100 students were killed, and almost 200 students remain missing.
Many schools were completely or partially destroyed, or are being used as evacuation centres. Students whose schools have been repurposed as evacuation centres have had conduct classes in basketball courts or municipal halls.
But returning to school is essential for all flood-affected children. School helps children resume a sense of normalcy, which is critical to their emotional recovery. Schools are also a protective environment for children, who are more vulnerable to exploitation and abuse in the aftermath of disasters. And in the long-term, education promotes social cohesion and contributes to the social and economic stability of the flood-affected areas.
On 23 January, Ms. Benedictos and Ms. Gambuta began their first day of class since the deluge.
“I was able to hold class today but it was very hard,” Ms. Gambuta said. She had learned that two of her students are still missing, five weeks after the disaster.
“Some of my students are still in shock. I wanted to cry while they were telling me their stories about the flood, but I had to be strong,” she continued. “Adults like me can recover, but with children, it’s extra hard for them. Going back to school would be good for them.”
The Government’s Department of Education, UNICEF and other education partners are working together to help children return to the classroom. UNICEF and partners are supporting the repair or reconstruction of 23 severely damaged schools and 68 day-care centres. UNICEF is also providing school kits, early childhood development kits and other learning supplies, and is working with partners to train volunteers to offer psychosocial support activities to children in schools and evacuation centres.
“In an emergency, the school acts as a lifeline for children. That is why UNICEF helps to quickly reopen schools and replace children’s school supplies. We believe getting children back in school is an important step in regaining normalcy in their lives,” said Maria Lourdes de Vera-Mateo, Education Chief of UNICEF Philippines.
The children have also been eager to return to class. It has been an inspiration for teachers like Ms. Benedictos and Ms. Gambuta, who remain as committed as ever to helping their students.
“Children need to heal properly, and we as teachers need to help them through it,” Ms. Gambuta said.