Children Return To School In Post-Quake Chile

By Dialogo
March 10, 2010

Hundreds of thousands of Chilean children returned to class Monday as a revised death toll continued to climb nine days after an earthquake and tsunami waves devastated the country. Students' screams of joy at finding their old friends rang throughout schools, while parents recounted the horror of days scrambling for food and water and sleepless, chilly nights outside their crumbled homes. "It's good for the children to go back to school, because they will focus on their stories," a mother said as she dropped off her son at Subcaseaux Junior High School in Santiago. Teachers had received training to receive with "lots of love, lots of willingness to listen" the young ones still in shock from the tremor that affected two million people, Education Minister Monica Jimenez said. "I missed my friends, I've been afraid of the aftershocks," a boy said just before entering class for the first time since the end of the southern hemisphere's summer. Only children in the hardest-hit regions of Maule and Bio Bio did not go back to school, with their return delayed until late March or late April because so many schools were destroyed in the February 27 quake. During a visit to Subcaseaux, which is hosting students from affected areas, Jimenez said nearly 80 percent of children were returning to class. Patricio Rosende, the deputy interior minister, said 45 new bodies had been identified, bringing the official death toll to 497 as search and rescue crews continued to comb Chile's decimated coastline. The figure does not include people who have been reported missing and were unaccounted for, and Rosende did not provide a tally of those. Initially the government mistakenly lumped the missing with the confirmed dead for a higher toll. In all, 7,000 children whose schools were rendered unusable by the disaster were assigned to other institutions for a few weeks or sometimes even the whole year, Santiago Mayor Pablo Zalaquet told TVN television. For some students in the capital region, home to more than a third of the country's population, their return to school was delayed a few days so that their schools could be repaired. In Concepcion, the second-largest city in the country, there was little talks of returning to school for students. The playground was eerily empty at a Methodist high school, one of the quake-stricken coastal city's largest. The structure seemed to have withstood the shock of the tremor, although the cross atop the chapel was crooked. Workers were busy at work below. "Four of the gym's beams collapsed, the library is unusable, same for one of the classrooms. And there are cracks everywhere," one worker said. Elsewhere in Maule and Bio Bio, power outages and the lack of drinking water kept many schools's doors closed. "Let them take their time," Jimenez said. Officials, meanwhile, began to get a better handle on the extent of the damage caused by the 8.8-magnitude quake and the giant waves that quickly followed. Public Works Minister Sergio Bitar estimated that 1.2 billion dollars would be needed to rebuild crushed public transportation infrastructure, including around 40 bridges that snapped during the disaster. Rebuilding health facilities and hospitals would cost 3.6 billion dollars, according to Health Minister Alvaro Erazo. President-elect Sebastian Pinera, who takes office on Thursday, said his cabinet was preparing an emergency bill and a reconstruction law so that the 2010 budget could be "adjusted to reflect our needs and the reality on the ground." Current President Michelle Bachelet was on a tour of ravaged regions, visiting the coastal towns of Dichato and Constitucion. Pinera blasted critics of the deployment of some 14,000 soldiers in quake-hit areas to quell riots and looting -- a move unprecedented since the end of the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet in 1990. "The military is an institution with very useful tools in times of disaster" to guarantee public order and prevent looting, Pinera told DNA radio. "They are Chileans like everyone else," he said of the soldiers. "This prejudice (toward the military) is absurd, we must eliminate it from our minds."