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The desperate need for education in Tonga after Cyclone Gita

One of the biggest impacts in Tonga of Cyclone Gita has been to children's education

For the 20  or so children gathered at Fasi Primary School, the exposed timberwork of a damaged classroom has become a makeshift jungle gym.

They dart in and out of the skeletal structure, using the wooden frames as an obstacle in a game of tag.

It's been less than two weeks since Cyclone Gita tore through the Tongan capital of Nuku'alofa. Normally, 500 students would fill these school grounds - but there will be no classes held here today.

In this building, the wall that once divided two classrooms has been punched right through. Most of the roof has blown away. Part of it is in a nearby courtyard. The classroom next door also has no roof. Two other classrooms require urgent repairs, and the whole school is without clean drinking water.

These students - the eldest at the school - have been enlisted to help the teachers with cleanup. They have turned up each morning to work solidly until the midday sun becomes too harsh.

The sound of children laughing and playing again was a relief to Principal Taufa Kioa. In the week after Cyclone Gita, she had been alone on these grounds.

"There was a lot of work to be done at home. But I talked to my husband and my children, they knew I needed to be here at the school," she says.

Taufa spent those days salvaging what she could from the destruction. Her children visited throughout the week, bringing her food and water. The school resources she has managed to save stand in tall stacks in her office, but there aren't nearly enough for every student.

An assessment led by the Government of Tonga reported that at least 129 classrooms in 83 primary and secondary schools were damaged in the cyclone, affecting an estimated 25,000 students.

It's a similar story throughout Tongatapu and 'Eua Islands.

In total, an estimated 32,000 children have been impacted by Cyclone Gita.

Eleven-year-old Gary is one of those 32,000 children. He was home with his parents and older brother when Cyclone Gita launched its assault on Tongatapu.

He describes hiding beneath a strong table in his bedroom, clutching on to its sturdy legs.

"It was a strong wind. My parents told me to hide, and I hid there until morning," he saids, through an interpreter.

It was a terrifying ordeal, but standing in the broken classroom, Gary is able to focus on other things. He describes how he likes to sketch portraits of Batman and that English is his favourite subject.

He says the best part about helping with the cleanup has been playing with his friends again - something he had missed terribly.

In the aftermath of any disaster, a key consideration is for children's mental wellbeing.

At the Vaini Health Centre outside Nuku'alofa, Health Officer Losaline Kaufusi says her five-year-old daughter has seemed preoccupied with death since the storm.

Losaline describes how her daughter's teacher wasn't feeling well and came into the centre for a checkup. But when her daughter found out about the visit, she asked a series of questions.

" 'Is my teacher sick? Is she going to be okay? Is she dying now?' "

"I know she misses her teacher, and her pen and paper. Every time I look for my pen, she has taken it."

Principal Taufa Kioa has also noticed changes in some of her students.

"Some of them are totally different. They just sit and stare, looking around at the damage."

But she says the simple routine of school can distract children and help them recover after a disaster like this. Returning to the normality of education and moving on from the terrifying impact of the cyclone is a vital part of the recovery process.

"We want to encourage the kids to come back to school and talk, to try to calm down their minds."

Taufa is hopeful that normal classes might resume next week. Her office is being converted into a classroom for some of the students, while Unicef and partners have erected two school tents on the grounds to act as temporary learning spaces while classrooms are repaired.

In the meantime, Taufa and the other teachers will do whatever they can for their kids and their school.

"I have six kids - they have already finished their education. There is nothing more important than getting an education. We will just try, and do our best."