As Sri Lankan schools resume, teachers brace for emotional roll call

As students traumatised by the Asian tsunami return to school in Sri Lanka Monday, teachers braced for an emotional rollercoaster and the beginning of a long process of psychological recovery.

Vice-principal of Sudhamma College S.K. Weerasuruya, standing among dump trucks and volunteers frantically clearing debris ahead of school opening, told AFP that the focus of teachers would first be on working out who had survived.

The task will be heartwrenching at his 1,200-student school near Galle harbour, which on December 26 lifted up and slammed its waters into this southern Sri Lankan town.

Up to 400 students here are believed to be dead or missing.

"Many students here come from areas along the coast," explained Weerasuruya.

These were the places worst hit by the tsunami, which ravaged three-quarters of Sri Lanka’s coastline, killing more than 30,000 and leaving an entire generation of children emotionally scarred.

But the biggest efforts will be on helping survivors get back to normal life, he said. The school will tally Monday who lost their homes and needs new school uniforms, books, stationery and supplies decimated by the tsunami.

"Their parents will come with them, with the staff… We will look after them," he promised.

The school was still thick with reminders of the tragedy. The yard is crisscrossed with muddy tyre tracks, strewn with broken glass and made sadder by a few forlorn trees that withstood the onslaught.

A building housing 14 classrooms was flattened, the science lab is still a sodden mess, and hundreds of chairs and desks were destroyed, along with the contents of the administrative office.

Across the other side of town, St Aloysius’ College escaped damage, but at least five of its 3,630 students and staff died, with the number expected to rise as students file in.

Teacher Chandana Amarasinghe, 39, said he was nervous about class.

"We are very close to our students. If we come to know that that boy, that boy, or that boy are gone…" he said, gesturing to imaginary empty chairs, "then we will be very sad."

He said he had already met with students who had lost their homes and "have almost lost their minds" as he warned that teachers were unprepared to cope with the new needs of their fragile students.

"We teachers need some sort of training to help those children who have been affected by the catastrophe, to know how to bring them back to what they were, mentally, before it," he said.

Concerns have swelled internationally that the tsunamis which tore apart Indian Ocean coastlines may pose a global mental health problem. Experts say survivors risk becoming suicidal or developing other serious neuroses.

At least, getting back to school will be a start, and better than sitting around in camps or destitute homes, Amarasinghe said.

"Once they come here, they’ll be together with their friends, and they’ll forget about everything for a while. It’s some kind of relief for them."

Students’ studies at this college will be further disrupted by them sharing quarters with up to 15 displaced families sleeping in the school’s classrooms, which were transformed into a temporary camp in the tsunami’s aftermath.

Of Sri Lanka’s 9,970 schools, 170 have been damaged or destroyed, and another 224 are being used to accommodate the homeless, but authorities aim to find other accommodation for them by the end of January.

"The education ministry told us to tell the police that we were having trouble starting school" because of the homeless here, volunteer Percy Weraduwage told AFP.

"The police told us that we have a problem common to the whole country. Driving people out is not human, so we will start school and let the people stay here."

At Richmond College, principal W.N.R.P. Daniyas — who was himself swept off the road in his car with his wife and three children and counts himself lucky to be alive — expected at least 10 of his 4,300 students to be dead.

His school will also compile statistics Monday.

On Tuesday, they will hold a Buddhist ceremony as part of the grieving process. And to help students ease back into academic life, normally strict rules will be relaxed for the first week back.

"We have informed the head prefect not to check uniforms, haircuts, rules and regulations, times of attendance," he told AFP.

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