Syria’s academic year officially started on Sunday, according to officials, but most schools remained closed in flashpoint areas including Aleppo as fighting raged between rebels and the army.
The United Nations had said on Friday that over 2,000 Syrian schools have been damaged or destroyed and hundreds more are being used as shelters, and warned of the staggering challenge to prepare for the new school year.
Syrian state media reported that “more than 5 million students and 385,000 teachers and employees” went back to school on Sunday.
The ministry of education has taken all measures to ensure “the smooth functioning of education” from day one of the school year, official news agency SANA said.
But in Aleppo, parents kept their children home and most schools did not reopen on Sunday as troops pounded several rebel-held areas and battles for control of the country’s commercial hub and second city continued to rage, an AFP correspondent said.
Residents of the northern city said they believe that schools will remain closed in Aleppo as they did last year in the flashpoint central city of Homs, amid fierce clashes between government forces and anti-regime fighters.
The AFP correspondent who toured several districts of Aleppo said schools were closed in trouble spots, including the central neighbourhood of Midan, Bustan al-Basha, Haidariyeh and Tariq al-Bab.
But even in safer areas where schools were open, classrooms sat empty and teachers signed into work solely as a formality.
Many schools have been destroyed in the violence that has shaken Aleppo since July while others are being used by rebels as hideouts and still more are sheltering refugees, the correspondent said.
Meanwhile a hospital employee told AFP she took her two boys to their school in the western Damascus suburb of Mashruh Dummar where there was a big crowd of parents and children.
“There were a lot of people this morning. The kids were excited to go to school,” she said.
There was also a large turnout in Daouhat al-Horriyeh, a kindergarten in central Damascus.
But on the outskirts of the capital and the suburbs, which have been transformed into battlefields, children remained holed up at home.
“I did not send my children to school, simply because schools are closed in the area,” complained a taxi driver from the southern Damascus suburb of Tadamun, which has come under regular shelling attacks.
Several schools were closed in other Damascus districts.
“Schools in Tadamun and Al-Hajar Al-Aswad did not open,” a Damascus-based activist who identified herself as Alexia told AFP via Skype.
“Some in Midan did open, but most families would not send their children for fear of the security situation. As a result, many classes were cancelled,” she said.
Several schools in the southern belt of the capital, scene of fierce summer battles, were used as shelters for people displaced from their homes.
“We have worked to coordinate the shelters better, so that children can go back to school, and the displaced still have a refuge,” said Alexia.
– Trauma of conflict keeps children at home –
For children in the town of Daraya, southwest of the capital, destruction and trauma combined meant there was no school at all.
More than 500 people were massacred in Daraya in late August, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
“The memory of the massacre is too recent, most families did not even think of registering their children in school,” said Abu Kinan, a Daraya-based activist. “In addition, many of Daraya’s schools were shelled and damaged or destroyed by the army.”
According to Qaloo Ammar, an official at the Damascus prefecture, 900 schools were opened in the capital while 13 schools establishment were being used as shelters for displaced people who fled violence in their neighborhoods or cities.
In the rebel-held town of Qusayr, in the central province of Homs, the opposition said it was opening neighbourhood schools so children do not travel far to reach classrooms.
“We are organising small schools on an alley-by-alley basis, so that children do not have to walk far to get to school,” an activist from Qusayr who identified himself as Hussein said.
“This way children will not miss classes, even if there is shelling on Qusayr,” he added.
For the UN’s children agency, UNICEF, the new school year will be an “immense challenge.”
More than 2,000 of Syria’s 22,000 schools have been damaged or destroyed, spokeswoman Marixie Mercado said on Friday, citing Syrian education ministry figures, while over 800 are sheltering displaced families, “200 more than last week”.
But she said it was crucial to shift focus from the “nightmare” the children are living after 18 months of escalating conflict in Syria that has killed 27,000 people according to the Observatory and 20,000 according to UN estimates.