Haitian education system "totally collapsed"

PORT-AU-PRINCE Mon Jan 18, 2010 6:31am GMT

People rummage through a collapsed school in Cite Soleil in Port au Prince, January 15, 2010. REUTERS/Logan Abassi/UN Photo/Handout

People rummage through a collapsed school in Cite Soleil in Port au Prince, January 15, 2010.

Credit: Reuters/Logan Abassi/UN Photo/Handout

PORT-AU-PRINCE (Reuters) - Half of Haiti's schools and its three main universities were destroyed or badly damaged in the earthquake, but classes must resume even in tents to help children overcome trauma, the education minister said.

"What we have seen is the total collapse of the Haitian education system," Joel Jean-Pierre told Reuters at the government's temporary headquarters in a police station.

About half the nation's 15,000 primary schools and 1,500 secondary schools were hit in the quake, he said, creating an enormous challenge for the Western hemisphere's poorest nation.

The three main universities in Port-au-Prince were also "almost totally destroyed," Jean-Pierre said.

Already desperately short of resources and struggling with poor infrastructure, Haiti now has to cope with its pulverization from one of the world's worst earthquakes.

The government says most of Port-au-Prince will have to be rebuilt, and between 100,000 and 200,000 people died in Tuesday's 7.0 magnitude earthquake.

"At the time of the disaster, just before 5 p.m., there were many schools still working because this was the second session of the day. And the universities were all still working. So many, many people died inside," the minister said.

The priority now was to somehow get classes going again, he said. "I don't know how, perhaps in tents or the open-air. But even in wartime, schools must function."

U.N. AID

Classes could be a focus for post-traumatic stress help and for feeding, the minister said.

"For the mental health of the population, the children and students need to go back to normal life. They will have hot meals and psychological treatment at schools."

Jean-Pierre said his own ministry collapsed, with 25 rescued alive so far from 100 people inside at the time.

"I am still collecting the bodies from under my office."

Like cabinet colleagues, his family suffered losses.

"My brother has just called to say he is collecting the bodies of his wife and children," he said.

Though preoccupied with the immediate aid operation, the United Nations has already said how important reviving the education system is for the country's long-term prospects.

"The destruction of the university in Port-au-Prince and of numerous secondary and primary schools in Tuesday's earthquake, and the human loss of teachers and students, is a catastrophic set-back for a country already hit by other disasters," the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization said in a statement.

UNESCO director-general Irina Bokova said the global body would rally support for temporary facilities and rebuilding.

"I also urge academia to show solidarity. Universities in the region and beyond should make every effort to take in Haitian students," she said in a statement.

"Education is at the core of Haiti's recovery and is the key to Haiti's development."

Haiti has a literacy rate of 53 percent, according to the CIA World Factbook.

(Editing by Jackie Frank)