More than 200 high-school students in a remote region of southwest China are suffering extreme hardship as a bitter winter begins to bite, prompting calls for humanitarian relief from their teacher and charity workers.
The students, all members of the Buyi ethnic group in a remote mountainous district of Guizhou, are struggling to keep warm in sub-zero temperatures, while their parents are away working in industrial jobs, students and teachers said.
"I'm so cold, and there aren't any clothes to wear," Yang Xiuling, a student at the Luokun High School in Guizhou's Luodian county, told RFA's Mandarin Service on Tuesday.
"[I have] three garments."
Yang added: "I have a cold, and a lot of our classmates are coughing in class. [At night] we have to look for clothes to cover ourselves with, and if we're cold [in daytime] we have to run around."
Yang's class teacher Luo Li said many of his class were already getting sick from the cold, as they were forced to wash and do laundry under a cold-water hosepipe in the school courtyard.
"They have runny noses, and they're coughing, and some of them have chillblains on their hands," Luo said. "I told [two of them] to put on more clothing, but they looked down and said nothing."
"I am sure that they don't have any clothes, but were too ashamed to say so."
"I can bring out some old clothes of mine to help the boys, but I have nothing for the girls," Luo added.
Temperatures likely to fall further
He said temperatures in the region, which were currently around zero degrees C in Guizhou on Tuesday, were likely to fall still further.
Central heating doesn't exist in many of China's southern provinces and cities.
"The only clothes they have are thin, cotton garments," Luo said. "There's one kid who...only has two garments [to his name]."
He said the school was doing its best to keep the children alive and healthy during the week.
"From Monday to Friday, the school provides them with free breakfast, lunch and dinner, as well as free living quarters," Luo said. "But they can't give this to all the students."
"Now it has got cold, a lot of the kids have no quilted bedding...they don't possess any," he said.
"The school takes care of them during the week, but if they don't have a grandmother or grandfather at home to take care of them at the weekend, there's nobody to take care of them."
He said the majority of children are the "left-behind" children of migrant workers.
"Their parents all went off to Guangdong, Zhejiang and places like that to work, and left the kids at home," Luo said. "They come back to enrol their kids in school, and for Chinese New Year."
"Their parents have it pretty tough, and they only make about 1,000 yuan (U.S. $165 ) a month," he said, adding that the glass in the school windows was broken, and that several children huddled under a single quilt at night to keep warm.
"The wind blows through the broken windows," Luo added.
Asked if there was any heating in the school dormitory, he replied: "Not likely. The teachers don't have it, let alone the students."
Teachers helping out
He said the teachers were doing their best on a meager salary to help out their students. "But we only get so much, and the teachers have families to provide for as well," Luo said.
Luodian is classed as a poverty-stricken county, according to the Luokun school principal, who gave only his surname, Zhu.
"Most of our students come from rural areas, and the school itself is in financial difficulty," Zhu said. "We are particularly short of beds and bedding."
"You could say this is a very common problem...in the mountainous regions."
He said much-needed social assistance funding from the county government appeared to have dried up this year.
"Last year, we had funding from the civil affairs bureau, but they could only give it to some students," Zhu said.
"All the schools in our county are in difficulty, and they have to divide up the resources between them."
He said charitable funding had been funneled into schools in Luodian's county town.
"We feel as if they don't care much [about us]," Zhu said. "But there are so many township schools like ours, that whenever we do get some funding, it's like a drop in the ocean."
A Beijing-based charity worker surnamed Li said her group had recently called for donations to help impoverished children in mountainous regions of China through the winter.
"We are calling on our friends to bundle up old clothing, and we have been in touch with a charity in Guizhou to collect some funds," she said.
"We can't be sure of the quality of the stuff we get, though," Li added.
The case comes after the deaths of five Guizhou "left-behind" children in a dumpster in November 2012 caused a public outcry.
Guizhou authorities took disciplinary action against eight officials and teachers in connection with the deaths of the five children of migrant workers whose bodies were found in a dumpster where they had apparently been living.
The case sparked outrage among netizens concerned over the protection of minors and threw a spotlight on the plight of migrant parents, many of whom leave their children behind in their hometowns, citing educational discrimination and tough living conditions in the cities where they work.
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.