Two months after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami disaster in Japan, communities in the affected areas are still struggling to get back to normal. And while nothing will ever be exactly the same again, the process of getting schools up and running and kids back to studying continues to help the process and have a therapeutic effect on students.
Kirikiri Middle School in Otsuchi, Japan, the only remaining middle school in the tsunami-devastated coastal town of 15,000, only reopened two weeks ago. At one point, half of Otsuchi was underwater. At least 1,600 residents were killed. After the disaster, the school became a temporary morgue, housing the bodies of the town's dead. The bodies have been removed, but the challenges facing the school and its students are unimaginable.
Students walk or take buses to school across plains of flattened rubble, where neighborhoods once stood. They arrive at a building where 300 students must fit into space built for a third that number. Most sports have been canceled because the school’s playing field is being filled with prefabricated apartments for some of Otsuchi’s thousands of newly homeless. Half of the students live in refugee shelters, and many lost one or both parents.
Despite this, principal Nagayoshi Ono says the community is facing the "test like a nation at war, and how we respond to this test is up to us." The staff lines up every morning to welcome and encourage students, and teachers continue to be on the lookout for signs of post-traumatic stress. But students say getting back to something familiar—school—helps them deal with the stress of living in shelters and having lost loved ones. And, as Ono says when thinking students who didn't make it through the disaster alive, "They want us to persevere."