Santiago: Hundreds of thousands of Chilean children have returned to class as a revised death toll continued to climb nine days after an earthquake and tsunami waves devastated the country.
Students` screams of joy at finding their old friends rang throughout schools, while parents recounted the horror of days scrambling for food and water and sleepless, chilly nights outside their crumbled homes.
"It`s good for the children to go back to school, because they will focus on their stories," a mother said as she dropped off her son at Subcaseaux Junior High School in Santiago.
Teachers underwent training to receive with "lots of love, lots of willingness to listen" the young ones still in shock from the tremor that affected two million people, Education Minister Monica Jimenez said.
"I missed my friends, I`ve been afraid of the aftershocks," a boy said just before entering class for the first time since the end of the southern hemisphere`s summer.
Only children in the hardest-hit regions of Maule and Bio Bio did not go back to class, with their return delayed until late March or late April because so many schools were destroyed in the February 27 quake.
During a visit to Subcaseaux, which is hosting students from affected areas, Jimenez said nearly 80 percent of children were returning to class. As schools reopened, Chilean emergency crews combed through the devastation wrought by the massive earthquake and accompanying tsunami to try to account for the dead.
Patricio Rosende, the deputy interior minister, said 45 new bodies had been identified, bringing the official death toll to 497 as crews continued to search Chile`s decimated coastline.
The figure does not include people who have been reported missing and were unaccounted for, and Rosende did not provide a tally of those. Initially the government mistakenly lumped the missing with the confirmed dead for a higher toll.
While the death toll was a mere fraction of the 220,000 estimated to have died in Haiti`s January earthquake, scientists Monday unveiled new data testifying to the spectacular force of Chile`s 8.8-magnitude quake.
The monster jolt moved the entire city of Concepcion, Chile`s second-largest, more than three meters (10 feet) to the west, according to measurements gathered by a team of Chilean and US scientists and released by Ohio State University.
In all, 7,000 children whose schools were rendered unusable by the disaster were assigned to other institutions for a few weeks or in some cases even the whole year, Santiago Mayor Pablo Zalaquet told TVN television.
In Concepcion there was little talk of returning to school for students.
The playground was eerily empty at a Methodist high school, one of the quake-stricken coastal city`s largest. The structure seemed to have withstood the shock of the tremor, although the cross atop the chapel was crooked. Workers were busy at work below.
"Four of the gym`s beams collapsed, the library is unusable, same for one of the classrooms. And there are cracks everywhere," one worker said.
Elsewhere in Maule and Bio Bio, power outages and the lack of drinking water kept many school doors closed.
"Let them take their time," Jimenez said.
Officials, meanwhile, began to get a better handle on the extent of the damage caused by the 8.8-magnitude quake and the giant waves that followed. Public Works Minister Sergio Bitar estimated that 1.2 billion dollars would be needed to rebuild crushed public transportation infrastructure, including around 40 bridges that snapped during the disaster.