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Most schools reopened in battered Myanmar

Roof parts hung precariously low at one facility. Concerns arose over children's safety.

THUWANA, Myanmar - As students filed into Middle School No. 1 yesterday for the first day of classes since the cyclone hit Myanmar a month ago, all eyes turned upward - at the hole in the roof.

The school in Thuwana, a southern suburb of Yangon, was one of 4,100 damaged or destroyed by Cyclone Nargis, according to the UNICEF.

The May 2-3 storm struck during the summer break, which runs until the end of May. The government delayed the June 2 start of the new term for a number of schools in the worst-hit areas of the Irrawaddy Delta, where entire villages were wiped off the map.

Most schools reopened on schedule yesterday in and around Yangon, despite the concerns of some teachers, parents, and international aid groups about safety risks.

At Middle School No. 1, classes resumed in a building where strips of rusted corrugated iron roofing hung precariously overhead.

The storm's winds shattered windows and punched holes in the school's flimsy walls, and, according to one teacher, knocked the building off its foundations, so it will eventually have to be rebuilt.

"I am worried about the rain," said San Aye, the mother of a 12-year-old. "If the rains get inside the school, the children will get sick."

Still, she said she supported the decision to start school because she thought any delay would hurt the students academically - a widespread concern in a country where education is highly valued and the primary-school enrollment rate is 82 percent for both boys and girls, according to UNICEF.

But Khin Yir, a teacher in the northern Yangon suburb of Hlaing Thar Yar, said she believed it was a "bad choice" to reopen schools so soon.

The storm's 120 m.p.h. winds ripped the roofs off two of the three buildings at her junior high, and driving rains caused widespread flooding, she said. She asked that the school not be named for fear of government reprisals for talking to a reporter.

"We teachers tried to salvage what we could, but the rain damaged everything," said Khin Yir, dressed in the standard school uniform of a white shirt and forest-green


, the traditional sarong worn by both men and women in Myanmar.

"We teachers hand-dried as many books as we could, and it's a good thing we did because we have to use them now," she said. "We haven't gotten any new supplies."

Khin Yir said she feared for her students' safety and was concerned about how to help them cope with the trauma caused by the storm, which left at least 134,000 people dead or missing and more than two million homeless.

Even in Yangon, the biggest city, so many schools needed repairs that the roofs could not all be fixed in time for the start of classes.

Primary School No. 20 was among the lucky few - it reopened with a gleaming new iron roof topping the one-story schoolhouse in the northeastern Yangon suburb of Dagon, and the words

Safety First

posted on the walls.

Despite their good fortune, some parents expressed dismay at the start of classes.

"Sending my daughter to school is a burden to me," said Khin Myo, as she dropped her 6-year-old off. The storm heavily damaged the family's home and destroyed the shop where she used to make a living selling onions and chilies.

Textbooks and uniforms cost 25,000 kyat - $25 - for the academic year, the equivalent of three weeks' work for laborers in this poor country.

At Middle School No. 1, fewer than half of the 385 enrolled students turned up, and a teacher, requesting anonymity for fear of the government, said that likely was because their parents couldn't afford school supplies or transportation.