Earthquake in Indonesia rattles schools and students

Reza, 6, was hurt when his family fled the earthquake that hit Pidie Jaya, Aceh, Dec. 10, 2016. (Credit: Sipa USA via AP)

A 6.4-magnitude earthquake in Aceh, Indonesia last Wednesday has not only left more than 100 dead and nearly 84,000 homeless, but thousands of children “indefinitely” out of school.

According to officials, at least 31 schools in the region were damaged by the earthquake – the worst disaster to hit the region since the tsunami in 2004. Just in Pidie Jaya, one of the hardest-hit districts, 25 percent to 30 percent of schools were damaged and seven completely leveled. Until repairs are completed, officials are worried a strong aftershock could topple already-damaged classrooms.

Children are worried, too.

“The school could not carry out their activities, not because they were damaged by the quake, but because students did not show up at schools,” Murthala, the head of education service in Pidie Jaya, said to Antara News.

Speaking to Reuters, a Plan International spokesman in Jakarta also noted that children are avoiding school for fear of entering buildings.

“When school buildings are safe, we know they are the best place for students to be following a disaster like this,” Ronald Sianipar, humanitarian manager of Yayasan Sayangi Tunas Cilik (YSTC) said in a statement. “It creates a sense of normality and safety and supports children’s emotional recovery.”

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In the meantime, Indonesia’s National Disaster Mitigation Agency announced on Friday that it is setting up tents as temporary schools, so children can return to their studies as quickly as possible. YSTC is also establishing a special playgroup to support post-disaster pyscho-social recovery, called a “child-friendly space.”

With 80 percent of disaster deaths occurring in Asia and nine of 10 Southeast Asian children spending “half their waking hours in schools,” the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has also launched a Safe Schools Initiative. Measures, such as building disaster-resilient facilities or training teachers and students in emergency safety procedures, aim to “enhance school safety against the adverse impacts of natural and man-made hazards.”

At least 75 million children globally had their education disrupted by natural or manmade disasters last year, according to a report by London-based charity Theirworld; 37 million were forced out of school completely.

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When children are out of school, they are “at greater risk of being coerced or exploited by extremists, traffickers and criminals,” the report said.

Additionally, a major disaster like this one threatens Indonesia’s impressive progress in education. According to UNICEF, 97 percent of children between 7 and 12 years old are enrolled in primary school.

Still, 2.5 million Indonesian children who should be in school are not – most of them older than 12 and from poor, rural households. Student performance is also low according to international standards, and junior high education in particular is under-funded.

Now, students must overcome the additional barriers of trauma and a shortage of safe facilities.

“We cannot underestimate the importance of education and emotional support for children after such a distressing event, particularly in an area that was so badly affected by the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami,” Sianipar said.

“A lot of people here are feeling traumatized and distressed, especially given this earthquake occurred so close to the coastline. People are afraid of another tsunami.”

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Joanne Lu

Joanne Lu is a South Carolina-based writer and editor dedicated to global development, poverty alleviation and social justice. After a year in Rwanda, she now covers the Asia-Pacific and economics. Find her on Twitter @joannelu or email joanne@humanosphere.com.