The new school year is a day of celebration in Ukraine, where children dress up and give bouquets of flowers to their teachers.
But Russia’s invasion has cast a shadow on the happy day. Now educational facilities across the country are racing to build bunkers and bomb shelters for returning students.
As schools prepare to open their doors in September, many educators are grappling with the fact that they don’t have the ability to provide safety to pupils, or peace of mind to parents, should their schools come under attack. “Our schools are not designed to be used as defensive facilities,” Serhii Horbachov, Ukraine’s education ombudsman, told CNN.
In Irpin, a leafy suburb of the capital Kyiv, fighting has wrecked parts of School Number 17, one of the largest in the city that teaches more than 2,400 children aged six to 17. Shrapnel has damaged the school’s roof and broken all its windows.
The gaping holes in bright-colored walls and floors of the school have since been fixed with concrete and plaster. With the help of the United Nations children’s agency, UNICEF, the school is rebuilding its bomb shelter. “We make it so that it is safe and comfortable there, and that children are not afraid, and that parents are calm,” the school’s headteacher, Ivan Ptashnyk, told CNN.
Anna Krasiuk, a ninth grader who was visiting the school last Wednesday, told CNN she missed her friends and teachers. “I really want to go to school … I dream of hugging my friends and just chatting,” she said. Beside her, second grader Ivan Pinchuk said all he wanted was for “Ukraine to win and (Russian President Vladimir) Putin to die.”
Six months since the outbreak of war, children like Krasiuk and Pinchuk are preparing for a new academic year at an enormously challenging moment for the country. Ukraine’s armed forces are battling a grinding Russian offensive in the east, and the country’s economy is in tatters.
The war has taken an extra toll on kids’ lives and prospects. At least 361 children have died since the war began, and 1,072 have been injured, Horbachov said. A June survey by the Ukrainian government estimates 5.7 million school-aged children (between 3 and 18 years old) living in Ukraine have been affected by the war, 2.8 million of whom are estimated to be internally displaced.
At least 6.3 million people have left the country, many of whom are women and children, according to United Nations estimates.
Ukraine, known for its digital innovation, quickly pivoted to online learning as education infrastructure bore the brunt of the Russian offensive. But the lack of technological devices and access to high-speed internet has posed a challenge, according to the June education needs assessment survey, which noted that the education sector needs 203,000 tablets and 165,000 laptops for teachers and students to carry on online learning.
The fighting has damaged 2,300 out of Ukraine’s 17,000 schools, according to education officials. Some 59% of all schools and universities will not be ready to resume in-person classes in September, education minister Serhiy Shkarlet said Tuesday, and no one knows how many students will attend in-person classes.
“The academic year will be very difficult,” Horbachov said. “It will begin in unpredictable and very difficult conditions, when there is actually no safe place in Ukraine, since (Russian) missiles can hit anywhere.”
The knowledge gap
After two years of Covid and half a year of war, educators worry that the knowledge gap is growing among Ukrainian children.
In 2018, the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), seen as an authoritative measure of students’ achievement, saw a two-and-a-half year disparity between students in rural areas and their peers in the big cities in Ukraine, said Oksana Matiiash, the head of Teach For Ukraine, an educational non-profit that trains and recruits young teachers to work in schools in low-income communities.
PISA also found the average skills of 15-year-olds in Ukraine were lower than in many EU member states. While there has been no recent assessment since the pandemic, Matiiash said she thinks the learning gaps are extreme: “A lot of people in Ukraine cannot afford extra help for their children – tutors, paid academic support – so I’m afraid to think about the number of months or maybe even years for learning that Ukrainian children have lost.”
Parents will have to decide if they are comfortable with sending their children back to school. Many are understandably reluctant. Horbachov said those living near the eastern frontlines have opted for online learning due to the constant risk of artillery strikes and air-raid sirens, which have become part of life in many Ukrainian towns and cities.
The last time 11-year-old Zlata Pavlenko spent a full academic year learning in classroom was 2019.
Sitting on a lilac bedspread in her light-filled apartment she shares with her parents in Kyiv, Pavlenko said she began online learning in 2020 due to the pandemic, briefly returning to school for a semester in 2021 before a new wave of the virus forced her and her class to resume studying from home.
Any hope of her returning to the classroom ended when Russia’s invasion disrupted every aspect of Ukrainian life, including children’s right to an education. Pavlenko fled Kyiv for western Ukraine with her family, only returning in May, but half of her class of 36 students still remains outside the country.
Pavlenko said she really wants to physically attend classes when the term starts on September 1, but her school’s bomb shelter can only accommodate a small number of children. Her mother, Hanna Kovalenko, said they will find out in the next few days whether children will have to attend school in shifts based on the shelter’s capacity, or if classes will be entirely online.
“As a mother, it is more difficult for me when the child is studying at home,” Hanna, who works as an accountant, told CNN. “Children lack communication (with each other when online learning), so we would like her to study offline.”
Socialization is a major part of learning, developing critical thinking skills and problem solving, which is why “ultimately, we want to see every child back to school and learning in the school environment,” UNICEF representative Murat Sahin told CNN.
But the war has meant that “children are not learning as much as they can, not interacting as much as they can and are not having a normal life,” he said, explaining that they are developing a plan with Ukraine’s Ministry of Education to help facilitate regular connections for teachers or tutors with small groups of children to “play, reflect or even do homework together.”
“For small children, for first graders, live contact with an adult is critically necessary. Children have to learn a lot of things in contact not only with adults, but also with peers. It is very difficult to achieve this in a remote format,” Horbachov said.
The war has also caused a brain drain of teachers, with 22,000 of Ukraine’s 434,000 educators (most of whom are women) having left the country, while many more remain internally displaced, he added.
Those who have stayed are increasingly anxious. “We conducted a survey among 350 teachers, and all of them indicated the prevailing emotion they feel is anxiety because of the increased responsibility to children,” Teach for Ukraine’s Matiiash said.
The stress and trauma of war has also permeated among children, affecting their ability to study. Pavlenko said she is scared that the Russians “will come here and the tanks will drive along our street, and they will knock on the door. That’s what I’m afraid of.”
On Tuesday, the Ministry of Education issued a statement confirming that most Russian and Belarusian authors have been removed from its foreign literature programs as well as classes in the Russian language. Ukraine history and world history have also been amended, where “the updated programs offer a view of the USSR as an imperial-type state.”
“For two years now, according to the law, there should not be a single Russian-language school in Ukraine. As for the Russian language as a subject, parents who consider themselves ethnic Russians can file an application to study the language as a language of national minorities,” Horbachov said. “Besides, we have a big advantage over the Russians in that we understand their language, but they don’t understand ours.”
‘A lost generation’
It comes as educators worry about the conditions for children living in Russian-occupied areas of southern Ukraine, like Kherson and Zaporizhzhia.
Horbachov said they have received almost 500 messages from teachers living there who are being “forced to work according to the educational programs of the occupiers,” he said, adding that “Ukrainian language and history have been thrown out of the (educational) programs.” Pro-Ukrainian teachers have reported being evicted from their homes, and threatened with arrest and execution, he added.
“My appeal to the people who remained in the occupied territories … to the teachers: we are grateful to them for the fact that they remain loyal to Ukraine and do not go voluntarily to cooperate with the occupiers, but (their) lives are more important,” he said.
The most important thing is to get children back into a routine, take their minds off the horrors of war, and see the value in education again, said Matiiash, citing another Teach for Ukraine study that found nearly half of children surveyed reported higher levels of stress. Children were also finding it “hard to see the value in education if – you know – everything is falling apart around them,” she added.
“This war is creating the risk of a lost generation,” she added. Anecdotal evidence shows that people who have left the country “cite education of children as one of the major reasons for why they are not returning to Ukraine,” she said.
“That is why we need to prioritize giving schools proper bomb shelters, so that kids can continue to receive a proper education without constantly worrying about their safety.”
Tara John wrote and reported from London. Maria Kostenko reported from Kyiv.