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Schools Reopen in Pakistan's Quake Zone

Thousands of students across Pakistan's devastated quake zone are finally heading back to school. Most are making do without textbooks; many are meeting inside small tents or even out doors. But the schools are one of the few bright spots for children still struggling to make sense of last October's deadly earthquake.

It is back to the basics for the girls at the Read Oriental College here in Muzaffarabad. Picking up where they left off more than three months ago, a dozen young women are reviewing their English lessons in an outdoor classroom.

Their school and most of their homes were completely destroyed by last October's massive earthquake. Many lost their parents. And despite dropping temperatures and the roar overhead of helicopters delivering aid supplies, students here seem completely focused on their lessons.

Sehr Raza Qizilbash with the United Nations Children's Fund, UNICEF, says getting kids back into schools like this one is a key component of their recovery. "Whenever an emergency happens it's the children who are most affected and they saw a lot of deaths happening," she said. "They are traumatized and if we do not get them back into a routine they will stay in that state."

The earthquake killed an estimated 80,000 people and left more than three million homeless - most in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir. At least 20,000 children died, many of them killed when their schools collapsed.

Officials say the entire school infrastructure in the region was almost completely wiped out. Even after aid workers helped set up emergency shelter, thousands of children in the quake zone still had no place to go during the day.

But officials say the worst is now over. Schools are beginning to re-open in towns and cities across the region. Most are just temporary. Some teachers are using tents for classrooms; others are meeting in open fields.

UNICEF's Sehr Raza Qizilbash says the U.N. agency is giving teachers emergency kits with enough supplies to help get things started. "It has rulers, pencils, slates, black boards for teachers," she said. "An atmosphere is created where they can begin their education."

She says each box has enough materials for three months and 80 children. More than 600 kits have already been handed out. Aid agencies are also distributing new tents for classes and the government is setting aside funds to build new, more permanent schools.

Even the U.S. Navy is helping out. American sailors rebuilt a girl's high school outside Muzaffarabad and a second boy's school is already under construction.

And everywhere the schools open, teachers say children are lining up to start classes.

Read Oriental College reopened in December. Today it has more than 380 students, boys and girls, age eight to 18.

17-year-old Asma Nissar enrolled just a few weeks after she buried her younger sister.

"We thought our life would be totally finished when our relatives go from this world," she said. "But when I came to college with my friends then a new hope of life came into my heart and I enjoy….really a beautiful sensation."

Her principal, Sabir Hussein Naqvi, says the new school is also an important symbol, letting the world know Muzaffarabad is slowly but surely, coming around.

"We are playing a vital role in this sense. The moment we reopened this institute the people who had migrated to different cities of Pakistan, now they are coming back to this city," he said. "This is real rehabilitation."

But officials say a number of significant challenges still remain.

Local teachers say it could take more than 12 months before there are enough classrooms to meet student demand.

Meanwhile, weather forecasters say more snow and freezing temperatures are on their way. In just a few weeks it may be too cold, and too wet, to study outdoors or in non-winterized tents.