WORLD / ASIA-PACIFIC
Fijian students start new school year amid COVID-19, aftermath of tropical cyclone Yasa
Published: Jan 20, 2021 10:39 AM

Students pose for a photo at a primary school in Suva, Fiji, Jan. 19, 2021. (Xinhua/Zhang Yongxing)


 Despite the impacts of COVID-19 and the tropical cyclone Yasa, the new school year in the South Pacific island nation of Fiji kicked off on Tuesday with nearly 200,000 students returning to schools.

According to the Fijian Ministry of Education, Heritage and Arts, 13,099 Fijian teachers set foot on school campus on Monday to make preparations for Tuesday's arrival of the 195,883 students, of which, 5,794 students begin their formal learning journey for the first time.

Welcoming Fijian students back to school, Fijian Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama said on Monday that Fiji has been facing the twin crises of COVID-19 and cyclone Yasa, and that every school that re-opens is a victory for the island nation.

Cyclone Yasa severely hit Fiji last month especially the northern island of Vanua Levu.

Students begin their school term at no cost to their families with free textbooks and subsidized transportation to school, and they can rest assured that no matter how difficult the situation may be today, things will get better and the future will be brighter, he said, adding that "Every student who is able to attend classes is a blessing. Every hour they study, learn, and expand their minds is an investment in Fiji's success as a country."

Photo taken on Jan. 19, 2021 shows a group of students at a primary school in Suva, Fiji. (Xinhua/Zhang Yongxing)


 
While promising that he will not let natural disasters like cyclone Yasa steal the Fijian children's education, the prime minister also reminded Fijian students not to take their education for granted, adding that their hard work today will reap lifelong benefits.

For her part, Fiji's Minister for Education, Heritage and Arts Rosy Akbar has said that no matter where students live or what their economic status is, every child in Fiji deserves equal access to quality teaching.

In collaboration with their partners, the authorities have assisted more than 6,000 students in the cyclone Yasa affected areas with school supplies, she said, adding that they will continue to provide school supplies and psycho-social support to students affected by COVID-19 and cyclone Yasa.

Parents wait for their children at the entrance of a primary school in Suva, Fiji, Jan. 19, 2021. (Xinhua/Zhang Yongxing)


 
The tropical cyclone has completely destroyed or partially damaged more than 100 schools across the nation, especially in Vanua Levu, Fiji's second-largest island.

With the new school year kicking off, many parents in Fiji are still feeling the brunt of the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact through 2020.

While some have lost jobs, others are working reduced hours and on reduced days and struggling to make ends meet, making it difficult to cover children's education expenses such as school uniforms, shoes, bags and stationery.

The prime minister has urged Fijian parents not to worry too much about their children's school uniforms as affected students can attend school in non-uniform attire.

Mili Bradburgh, a graphic designer and a mother of three children all under the age of 12, told Xinhua that unlike previous years, she only purchased the things they are lacking.

"My children will use the same school bag from last year. We just got it washed and patched and it looks good to reuse. We only bought one pair of uniforms for their first day."

She said that this year they were more conscious of the prices of stationery and were careful with their budget. She spent 250 Fijian dollars (about 122 US dollars) on all her children's school stuff.

Like Bradburgh, Mere Tavo, a secretary in capital Suva and mother of two children, told Xinhua that her budget for school this year is 250 Fijian dollars (about 122 US dollars) for stationery and uniforms.

"I have to keep in mind that I am on a strict budget hence no unnecessary spending. I strictly follow the stationery list and don't go beyond buying extras," she said.

Parents wait for their children at the entrance of a primary school in Suva, Fiji, Jan. 19, 2021. (Xinhua/Zhang Yongxing)


 
A middle-aged Fijian man who asked not to be named, a father of six children, told Xinhua in a Suva-based primary school that Fiji has so far successfully contained COVID-19, adding that 2020 is not easy for most Fijian families, but he takes a positive attitude towards the new year.

"The past year was full of difficulties and challenges for all of us. My son is a Year 7 student in primary school. I am very happy to accompany him to back to school today. I hope he will study hard and enjoy an excellent educational school year," he said.

Tevita Raicola, a Year 12 student of a prominent Suva boys' school, told Xinhua that he was looking forward to the new school year.

"I hope there will be no disruptions this year like what COVID-19 caused last year. The Year 12 and 13 curricula were related and both important to preparing students for university," said Raicola, who is using all his school uniforms and stationery from last year.

So far, Fiji has confirmed 55 COVID-19 cases and two deaths since the island nation recorded its first case on March 19 last year.

Fijian students are now ready to adopt the COVID-19 "new normal" such as temperature checks, hand washing and keeping social distance.

A manager of a prominent school in Suva, who did not like to be identified, told Xinhua that their school, which has 1,000 students, has set up new washbasins and provide hand sanitizers as well as soaps for students. Social distancing demarcations should be followed in areas like the canteen.
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