Classes start in a week at Okawa Elementary School. But 74 of the 108 students will never come back. They died in last month’s tsunami. All but one of the dozen teachers also perished.

The school’s main building is ripped open. Trees jam into second-floor classrooms and the gym and playground have been reduced to muddied concrete foundations.

All along Japan’s battered north-eastern coast, schools have been heavily damaged or converted to shelters, and families are without jobs, permanent homes or cars. But the country is determined to move ahead with one of its rites of spring: the start of the school year in April, even as some parents and children grieve.

“I’m just not ready to think about school yet. They haven’t even found my daughter,” said Naomi Hiratsuka, who lost her child Koharu, a sixth grader at Okawa Elementary, and has a younger one entering first grade.

Officials say establishing routines is a crucial step in rebuilding communities and drawing residents out of crisis mode. The 34 surviving students of Okawa Elementary will begin classes on April 21 in four rooms at a nearby school, staying together and treated as a separate school of their own.

“We don’t know yet if the school can be rebuilt, but we want to maintain continuity for the students,” says Kato Shigemi, an education committee official in Ishinomaki, a devastated riverside community about 220 miles northeast of Tokyo.

The damage to the school system is immense. In Fukushima, Miyagi and Iwate prefectures, which bore the brunt of the damage from the March 11 disaster, more than 1,000 students and teachers are dead or missing, out of an overall death toll that could top 25,000. To help deal with the mental strain, psychologists and school counselors from around the country are being trained and sent to the hardest—hit areas.

Classrooms will be crowded. Nearly 200 schools require replacement or major renovations, and thousands more need repairs. Hundreds are being used as shelters, mainly their gyms and assembly halls.

School buildings survived in the coastal city of Natori, but some students had already been picked up by their parents and were swept away, said Nobou Takizawa, an education official.

The city is arranging special buses to stop at shelters around Natori, he said. Classes will start about 10 days later than normal, and many schools will share buildings, as well as handle students from the shelters.

Any delay could set back the future of young survivors. The education system has clearly defined targets for each grade such as mastering hundreds of “kanji,” the written characters in the Japanese language that lead to crucial university entrance exams. Skipping or repeating a grade is rare.

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