Several organizations assembled Monday morning on a shady patio in Port-au-Prince to discuss a series of reactions to the new school construction standards released by the Haitian Ministry of Education in May (download the English translation here)(or the original document in French). This is the School Standards sub-group [of the UN Education Cluster] dedicated to the standards' review–sitting in the back yard of PARQE–"Programme d'appui au renforcement de la qualité de l'education" ("Program to support the strengthening of quality in education"). An air conditioner unit and a colony of unseen insects jostled for control of the ambiance. Somebody asked, in broken French, for the chairwoman to speak up. The group edged their ring of chairs closer. Then a shared expression passed over the listening faces of the attendees. It wasn't positive: the Haiti school standards would not be released by the Ministry until the end of September.
The implications are huge. Permanent school construction cannot begin until the standards are nailed down. This means that the school year will begin with students, parents and communities wondering when signs of normal life will begin to flourish. There is still the possibility that transitional schools can be built–structures light enough to be disassembled when the permanent structures come online. However this possibility needs to be presented to the Ministry for approval.
It's understandable why the standards would be postponed. On one hand, the Haitian government is trying to coordinate school standards with regional seismic needs…which cannot happen until the country is mapped and rated for seismic hazards.
On the other hand, there are a lot of problems with the first draft of the standards. This week marks a series of meetings confirming a review of the standards that many feel to be inconsistent, inflexible or unrealistic. A synopsis compiled by Melissa Arcand of Article 25 covers these points.
Land acquisition-many existing and fallen schools, especially in urban areas, have sites smaller than specified by the standards. Schools accommodating 100-300 children were on plots of 415m2-1800m2. The draft of the standards require 2500m2.
Electricity-The requirement of artificial lighting is unrealistic, especially considering how Haitian infrastructure allows on average 6 hours of electricity per day, how classes are only held in the daytime and how many schools are not even connected to an electrical grid.
Washrooms-the specified size of a toilet cubicle (3 m2) is double what's required by international standards (1.35 m2)–even larger than universally accessible cubicles (2.25 m2). Plumbing itself is not a reality for many Haitian schools.
Circulation-the standards require a funky set of measurements for hallways and doorways, including the requirement of classroom doors to be 1.2m (nearly 4 ft!) wide–a door this size would be very heavy for students to open and for carpenters to hang. A reconsideration of this dimension is requested.
Generally, Article 25 is indicating that the Ministry could be more flexible in their standards writing. Variables such as school and classroom size, accessibility to infrastructure and connection to preexisting school sites (and the communities they served) should be considered in the next draft, and at least a variance system could be put in place.
Many aid groups are questioning why the Ministry doesn't simply adopt Caribbean standards as a starting point that the Haitians can expand on as needed.
The meeting adjourned with an overall sense of frustration. Forces out of their control or preventing the construction of schools Haitian children desperately need. Perhaps transitional schools can mitigate this delay. Flexibility will be required, both on part of the Haitian Education Ministry and the organizations supporting school reconstruction to ensure that as little time possible is lost for the education of students without schools.
The above and other points are expanded upon in Arcand's comments. A pdf of the comments can be found here.