MANBIJ, SYRIA - Children in a Syrian town freed in August from the Islamic State militants are back in their regular classrooms after a near three-year absence.
"I'm really grateful to see children back in their seats," said Ahmed Hassan, a teacher at one of the elementary schools that reopened its doors in the northern town of Manbij.
When IS invaded in 2014, it took over schools, using them at first as military headquarters.
"They shut down all schools here," said Aqeel Hajji Mohammed, 17, a student. "They banned teachers and students from attending schools."
The student said IS fighters turned his middle school into a weapons cache. Another school, he said, was utilized as a sharia court to try locals under Islamic laws.
Mohammed was supposed to be in high school by now, but he is three years behind and does not know how long it will take him to make up the work.
Through the years, IS used some school buildings to teach extremist Islamist ideology. But many families shunned the strict IS education.
"Most people in Manbij were not sending their children to school because they were controlled by (IS)," said Wladimir van Wilgenburg, a local reporter who witnessed the town's liberation. "Parents were afraid their children would be affected by the (IS) ideology."
Manbij's prewar population was 80,000. The town had 17 schools including elementary, middle and high schools. Locals said only five schools have opened since IS retreated and are operating on limited capacity.
"We face many difficulties," teacher Hassan said. "We don't have a curriculum to rely on and we are extremely short on teaching staff."
Deciding what teaching methods to use are complicated. Government-sponsored curriculum ended in Manbij when rebel groups took control of the town at the start of Syria's civil war. Then IS took Manbij and now Kurdish forces are in control.
"I'm not sure what kind of system of education they would use," reporter Wilgenburg said, "Kurdish self-administration's or the old Syrian government system."
Some schools were destroyed during the August clashes between IS fighters and U.S.-backed forces. The rebuilding of schools and other education facilities could take a long time, town officials say.
VOA's Sirwan Kajjo contributed to this report from Washington.