PORT-AU-PRINCE — At one prestigious school in Port-au-Prince, children fleeing gangs have stayed sheltered behind the gates for weeks. Hundreds of miles southwest of them, some students inside a cracked school building still go into panic at the slightest hint of tremors, one year after an earthquake damaged the facility. In the Artibonite region, at least 30 schools were vandalized and looted during a two-week period that saw mass protests against inflation turn into mob riots.
In all regions of Haiti, looters raided the food pantries of schools throughout, making off with supplies meant for student lunches at the local schools.
Then in early October, the United Nations International Organization (UNICEF) said Haiti’s increase in violence and resurgence of cholera in Haiti may leave more than 2.4 million children unable to return to school.
That came as no surprise.
“For me, there is no climate yet for the opening of the schools, neither for the parents nor for the concerned authorities,” said a Pétion-Ville parent. “The goverment does not show any responsibility in a country totally on lockdown.”
As if the political climate and outbreak weren’t challenging enough, families and educators say, Haiti’s schools and facilities aren’t in shape or available to hold classes, having themselves become a casualty of a country in disarray. Between some being repurposed as shelters, others inaccessible due to proximity to shootouts and still others damaged by natural or man made disasters, hundreds of schools are unable to physically accommodate children and staff safely.
In a statement dated Sept. 17, the MENFP condemned the attacks on the schools and called for the protection of school infrastructure and archives. But facing Haiti’s current ills — gangs and the government at a stalemate, families displaced as they seek shelter from the violence, lack of food, fuel and water, and the cholera outbreak — protecting or repairing school properties seems a lower priority.
Now, three weeks since schools officially opened Oct. 3, with no one attending, some parents are hoping to be able to send children in January at the earliest.
The lack of facilities, along with the attacks themselves, all add up to even more trauma for school communities.
“Children develop a feeling of insecurity and fear, especially when they have to go to school,” said Guyno Duverné, a psychologist. “Their performance will decrease because they have other priorities. Moreover, in the majority of schools in Haiti, there is no psychologist to accompany them.”
“We should expect a lot of failing students given the situation,” Duverné said.
PaP schools used as shelters or bases for gangs
In the capital, it’s not uncommon for families to seek shelter in schools, among other facilities. According to UNICEF, at the beginning of June, 8,500 women and children moved out of Martissant, fleeing conflicts between armed individuals.
UNICEF released the findings of an assessment conducted with the Ministry of National Education and Professional Trade by MENFP in June showing that more than 200 schools were partially or completely closed by violence in Port-au-Prince, and nearly one in four schools were occupied by armed groups. These schools have been closed since June because they are located in gang-controlled areas.
Indeed, in Cité Soleil this summer, a shootout got so intense, the children were allowed to flee to nearby Saint Louis de Gonzague. The prestigious school is among those that remained closed last week. It is unclear if those children are still being sheltered there.
One in four schools is dysfunctional, revealed the UNICEF assessment conducted between April and May 2022 in the disadvantaged and difficult to access neighborhoods of Cité Soleil, Croix-des-Bouquets, Delmas, Ganthier, North and South of Port-au-Prince Pétion-Ville and Tabarre. According to the organization more than 500 schools out of 976 are assessed as dysfunctional or inaccessible.
No renovation work had taken place to rebuild some of the schools, said France Etienne Louisseul, director of the Western Department for Education. “For the operation of these schools, which are in dangerous areas, it is up to the highest authorities to look into this problem.”
The Haitian government has said having an official school date will allow them to have a slow reopening to the school year.
But with the lockdown still in place, many parents are now eyeing next year as a potential return date.
“It would be so good if the school year could start in January, with of course a reduced school program fo allow the children to save the year,” said a resident of Route des Frères, near Petion-ville. “I want to hope it can be done, even though reality tells me otherwise.”
Earthquake-damaged schools still in disrepair
In August, UNICEF released another study about Haiti’s southwestern departments stating that the majority of the 1,250 schools destroyed or damaged there by the 2021 earthquake had not been rebuilt. UNICEF said insecurity and lack of funds caused the delay and that current repairs underway may take years to complete.
Roldy Gilles, a teacher at Pestel national high school in Haiti’s Grande-Anse department, said about 60 schools damaged there still need repair, as do schools in nearby towns.
“Last year, we tried to finish the school program in the building, which is very cracked. At the slightest tremor, the already traumatized students panicked and tried to get out,” Gilles said.
“We had one student who sustained a broken arm once,” Gilles continued. “How can you ask your students to come back to learn in this same building where they are not feeling safe.”
Gilles said Pestel, which is in a remote area and has received no money to improve, feels the impact deeply of the long-standing dysfunction of the government.
“We want to work, but we don’t have the budget to rebuild,” he said. “Other schools have temporary shelters built by NGOs because the buildings are not appropriate. We did not even receive a stick of chalk from the ministry. The school doesn’t even have a map,” he explains.
Schools looted in Artibonite region dechoukaj
Since riots began in September, at least 30 schools were vandalized, mainly in the Artibonite region, said Nesmy Manigat, minister of National Education and Vocational Training.
A dozen of these schools, mostly of Roman Catholic and Anglican faith, have lost their records in the looting. Furniture, teaching materials, and digital infrastructure – all were stolen or destroyed.
“I said to myself that between the misery and the crisis in Haiti we lost our mindset,” said a forty-year-old father of two. “It should have never happened. That schools are looted like that. Hospitals, schools, churches must be protected spaces and the government must do whatever it takes to guarantee their protection.”