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Learning how to make the schools safe for students

AFTER the horrendous earthquake last year in Sichuan Province, the quality of the building of schools in the province became a national issue overnight. Now, nearly a year later, things are changing.

His son might have survived the Sichuan earthquake had such school buildings been available at the time.

As Song Guobin worked on the construction site of a new school in the Leigu Township of southwest Sichuan province, his feelings were mixed.

"The new school buildings are definitely stronger," he said, pointing at a pillar. "If only my boy could study in such a building as this." In the background, more than 100 workers were busy finishing the three-story building, which is set to open on May 12, the first anniversary of the massive earthquake.

Song's elder son, Song Lei, died in the earthquake. The 10th-grader was in class at the Beichuan middle school.

According to Wei Qiang, an engineer from the eastern Shandong Province who helped design the new building, it can resist earthquakes of up to 9.0 on the Richter scale.

"More steel and concrete was used in this building" than in the older ones, he said.

Li Qiang, vice headmaster of the primary school, estimated that the cost of the new building was 2,000 yuan (US$294) to 3,000 yuan per square meter, four or five times the cost of the old building.

Criticism arose after the quake, which left more than 80,000 people dead or missing. The poor quality of school construction was blamed for the deaths of many students. It is unknown how many children died in the disaster, but more than 7,000 schools collapsed in southwest China.

Li recalled that the old three-story school was built in the 1980s, using just concrete blocks without a steel framework.

In the Beichuan Middle School, where Song's son died, just four thin steel bars were used in each section of the wall, instead of eight thick ones as shown on the blueprint.

Many bereaved parents took to the streets, questioning construction quality and demanding answers from local governments. Officials apologized and the Communist Party chief of one county even knelt before parents.

The quality of schools in Sichuan became a national issue overnight.

President Hu Jintao vowed during his visit to Sichuan at the end of last year that schools would be built as safe places that could stand the test of time. Statistics from the Sichuan provincial education department showed that 3,340 schools needed to be rebuilt after the earthquake. As of late April, 1,937 schools were under construction, about 58 percent of the total. Construction of another 278 schools has been completed, 8.3 percent of the total.

Under national regulations, new schools should be able to resist quakes of up to 8 on the Richter scale. Some schools chose to make the buildings even stronger, like the Zundao Middle School in Mianzhu. That three-story school building, sponsored by real estate developer the Vanke group, cost more than 10 million yuan.

"In normal school buildings, about 50 to 60 kilograms of steel were used in each square meter," said Peng Xingkui, general manager of the Xindi Construction company.

But in Zundao, they used more than 100 kilograms of reinforcing steel bars, each one 25 millimeters in diameter, he said.

Steel plates and rubber were interlaced in the walls, where they will function like springs. These structures will "serve as a cushion when a quake hits," said Peng. He added that the "cushion" could last for 70 years and was replaceable.

After the 1,271 students moved into the new building, they experienced several aftershocks. "Gradually, fewer students panicked," said Yang Xingquan, headmaster of the Zundao Middle School. "For them, the school has become a safe place," he said.

Juyuan Middle School in Dujiangyan City was one of the worst-hit schools in the quake, with nearly 300 students killed. Parents of the dead students have staged several protests over building quality.

Xu Maohui, whose 15-year-old daughter was killed, found wooden sticks in the pillars of the collapsed building.

But this time, said an unidentified official at the construction site, "we have 38 steel bars in each pillar in the new building, almost twice as many steel bars as used in ordinary buildings."

In addition, L-shaped buttress walls about 2 meters wide have been built at each turn of the stairs.

At a meeting last year presided over by Premier Wen Jiabao, the amended Law on Precautions Against Earthquake and Relief of Disaster was passed. It took effect on May 1 this year.

According to the law, schools and hospitals must be designed to withstand strong earthquakes. School buildings should withstand quakes of at least 8.

The Red Cross Society of China has published guidebooks for students, telling them how to survive disasters. These books were first used in Sichuan on April 2.

However, having schools in Sichuan reopen might be the paramount goal.

Sichuan Province has pledged to have 95 percent of the students back in school buildings, rather than tents or prefabricated structures, before the end of this year. All students should be in regular school buildings by next spring.

Construction of the Beichuan Middle School is to start on May 12, the first anniversary of the quake, and the school is scheduled to open next September.

The new 200-million-yuan building, which can hold 5,000 students, was sponsored by overseas Chinese from around the globe. It was designed by staff from noted universities like Tsinghua University, the University of Hong Kong, Shanghai Tongji University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Construction worker Song Guobin hopes his younger son, 3-year-old Wang Haoyu, can study in a safe building. "Now that his brother is dead, he carries all my hopes," Song said.


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