SCHOOLS in China reopened on Sept 1, and the children of Shi Ban Primary in the You Xian district of Mianyang prefecture, Sichuan, headed back to their campus for lessons.
And just as it has been for the past year, they are having classes in one-storey prefabricated containers, constructed after the May 2008 Sichuan earthquake that killed at least 5,335 students.
Their school building was slightly damaged by the 2008 Sichuan earthquake and deemed unsafe for use by authorities. Fortunately, no one in the school was seriously injured during the disaster, said English teacher Jia Long, 25.
English teacher Jia Long, 25, in one of the the prefab classrooms used by Shi Ban Primary since the 2008 earthquake damaged the main school building. ST PHOTO: Lin Zhaowei
I was in Mianyang last Thursday to report on a joint initiative by NTU's Lien Institute For the Environment (LIFE) and Temasek Foundation to strengthen school buildings in earthquake-prone areas.
Shi Ban Primary was one of 12 schools in six provinces chosen to be retrofitted as model schools under the project.
The school, which has about 700 students, also runs dormitories. More than half of the students stay on campus during the school term as their homes are quite far away.
Mr Jia, who was once a student at Shi Ban Primary himself, told me that some students even thought that they were heading down to the school field for sports activities as they evacuated the school building on May 12 last year, when the earthquake happened.
The prefab containers with the old school building in the background.
ST PHOTO: Lin Zhaowei
But the reality of the earthquake soon struck.
For the first month after the earthquake, the teachers would go down to the different villages where the students live and conduct lessons. Then the prefab classrooms, standing on what used to be the school field, were ready and the students moved in.
Thus begun a difficult time for the students and teachers, as they had to cope with a less-than-ideal teaching and living environment.
The main annoyance with the prefab containers is poor thermal insulation. It gets too hot during the summer and too cold during winter. Not only does this make concentration difficult during classes, students have trouble sleeping at night.
One of the prefab dormitory rooms. Many students had trouble sleeping at night during summer as it gets too hot inside. ST PHOTO: Lin Zhaowei
Which is why the S$1.7 million project brings good news to the students. In partnership with Sichuan University, local masons were trained to retrofit the school building with locally-sourced materials so that it is more earthquake resistant — according to LIFE's director Associate Professor Li Bing, it will be made to withstand quakes as strong as magnitude 8.0 on the Richter scale.
Students sitting next to a retrofitted wall on the ground floor of the main building. They had specially returned to school for the ceremony to receive the delegation from NTU, Temasek and reporters. ST PHOTO: Lin Zhaowei
The retrofitting is due to be completed by the end of September, which means that Shi Ban's students can finally resume classes in their old school building.
Retrofitting is much cheaper and faster than rebuilding a school from scratch, which is much most local authorities did, said NTU's Prof Li.
At around 600,000 yuan per school of 1,500sqm, it costs less than the millions required to build a new school building.
The current project only started in July, and local masons I spoke to said that the retrofitting technique was quite easy to pick up. Building a school takes many months more.
Sichuan unversity post-graduate student Qiu Ci Chang (left), 23, teaches a local mason how to prepare a glass-fibre-reinforced polymer strip for application to a wall. He is one of about ten "master trainers" from his university, who are in charge of transferring the knowledge and know-how to local masons. ST PHOTO: Lin Zhaowei
I do not know how many students will still be studying in prefab classrooms by the end of the year.
The Sichuan authorities have estimated that over 3,000 schools had to be rebuilt. CCTV reported on Sept 1 that around 90 per cent of students have moved into permanent school buildings.
No more empty classrooms like this in Shi Ban Primary come October, said NTU's Prof Li. The retrofitting work will be done by end-September.
ST PHOTO: Lin Zhaowei
The statistics look comforting, but I really hope that the remaining 10 per cent of the students, like those in Shi Ban Primary, will have their permanent school buildings ready soon — winter is just a few months away.