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Smaller classrooms, safer students
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For the past few days, pictures of school emergency drills have been everywhere on TV. As the alarm bell rings, children stand up and file out of their classrooms into the corridor, down the stairs, out of the building, and onto the sports ground.

No one needs to be reminded that these scenes are part of the national commemoration of the first anniversary of May 12 earthquake, which killed more than 69,000 people and left 18,000 missing.

In those awful moments a year ago, as the earth shifted and shook violently, many students were unable to keep their feet and escape before their school buildings collapsed. According to government figures, 5,335 students were lost in the rubble.

Some 11,687 schools either collapsed or were damaged in the earthquake. No amount of fact-finding or finger-pointing will change that, but the State has stepped up actions to prevent such a tragedy from happening again. Last Friday, a nationally televised conference ordered all education bureau directors, school district heads, and school headmasters to spare no effort to insure the safety of their schools.

The State Council has issued a revised building code for school buildings, upgrading many of the requirements. According to my colleagues who are revisiting the quake zone in Sichuan this week, new school buildings in mountainous areas must be able to withstand 10 degrees on China's seismic intensity scale. On that scale, 12 degrees is the strongest and most serious; previously, school buildings were only required to withstand 7 degrees.

In new schools, thicker reinforcing rods and higher quality cement are being used. The chief engineer for the Nanba Middle School in Pingwu told one of my colleagues that the pillars of the old buildings contained only five reinforcing rods, while the new ones have more than 30. Reinforcing rods in new schools have a diameter of 2.5 cm, twice the diameter of those in old schools.

Despite all of this, I've found some of the pictures of evacuation drills more disconcerting than reassuring. Children are seen elbowing their way past one another to get out of their classrooms. The corridors are crowded, as are the stairways.

Although they meet the standard of 61 sq m for primary schools and 67 sq m for middle schools, the classrooms seem too big. As we have all learned, the bigger the classroom, the harder it is to prevent it from collapsing in an earthquake. With more than 50 students filing out of each classroom, the corridor and stairways quickly become overcrowded.

Emergency drills are important. On May 12 last year, more than 2,300 students and teachers miraculously escaped the collapse of the Sangzao Middle School in Anxian county. Classes at the school were big, some with as many as 80 students, but they were able to get out of the building in 90 minutes without a single casualty.

They had their headmaster, Ye Zhiping, to thank. Ye insisted on rigorous evacuation drills every year, drills both students and teachers considered a hassle.

Ye was meticulous. He devised fixed evacuation routes for each class and required students to exit at a fixed pace, so as not to pile up in the corridors or on the stairways. He demanded that teachers position themselves at each turn, to help students who fell behind.

We cannot expect such miracles. In addition to further reinforcing school buildings, the state should try to reduce the size of classrooms. Smaller classrooms and wider corridors and stairways will be safer for our children.

E-mail: lixing@chinadaily.com.cn

(China Daily May 14, 2009)

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