To forge bonds, Ukraine tries to bring kids back into schools – safely

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To forge bonds, Ukraine tries to bring kids back into schools – safely

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Another academic year is starting amid war in Ukraine, and some students are going back into classrooms. Schools have to fortify their facilities, but educators and parents view the in-person experience as worth the risk.

And this year, a third of Ukrainian students are going back to in-person classes full-time – if their schools are properly protected. “A school can only fit as many children as can fit in a shelter,” explains Damian Rance, UNICEF’s advocacy chief in Ukraine, during the reopening of another Irpin school completely rebuilt after being destroyed by Russian artillery and missile strikes.

But Ukrainians are undaunted. Their commitment to education is visible in efforts to repair schools and provide online learning to children both in Ukraine and abroad as refugees.

Local officials, parents, and teachers stress that it is not only about education. Just as important is the chance for children to be outside the family environment and make friends: an opportunity rendered even more precious by the horrors of war. For those who have lost relatives, hidden in basements as rockets and shells rained down, or experienced the prolonged absence of parents serving on the front, it’s a lifeline.

“We all want to be in the classroom,” says Lydia Rusan, an English teacher who gave up refugee status and village life in Switzerland to return to Irpin. “All the children want to be with their classmates. They don’t want to study online because they miss each other. The most important thing for them is to be together, even if it is a difficult time.”

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Cozy, comfortable, and safe

Kharkiv is a city pining for normality. You see it in the morning rush of parents dressed for work dropping off their children at the underground metro schools and playgrounds full of life at sundown.

Scores of windows remain boarded up above ground. Russian tanks are no longer in striking distance, but the regular wail of sirens warning of incoming missiles and periodic explosions still shakes the streets. That’s why the metro system was the obvious place to attempt a seminormal school year with educators and children finally gathering in person.

Some children are driven to this school just one flight of stairs under University Station in the city center. Others arrive on foot. The majority come in buses escorted by the police and are shepherded down by their school principals, who wear orange scarves for visibility. Security is taken seriously – even by 7-year-old David, who arrives clutching a toy wooden tank for comfort. “It’s great,” he says of the school.

The site is shared in shifts by children of different schools and grade levels. Bound by a long corridor, seven classrooms and a room reserved for the school nurse overhang the subway tracks. A Japanese ventilation system refreshes the air. The narrow classrooms are split by two columns of desks, bookended by a screen projector and a soft play area.

“We’ve really tried hard to make things as cozy and comfortable for the children – and we’ve taken all the safety precautions,” says Victoria Kuznetsova, the metro station supervisor who has added school traffic and safety to her list of responsibilities. Private security guards help guard the space and keep potentially unsavory characters at bay.

Everyone agrees there is no substitute for human connection. The decision to open schools in Kharkiv’s metro system was driven by parents and local officials who took that to heart. “It’s impossible to replace all the human warmth and motion of an in-person classroom with gadgets,” says Lyudmila Usychenko, a school principal who was shepherding third graders into the metro after a night of missile strikes on the city.

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“Here I can see, hear, and touch them – that’s so important,” stresses Olha Zakhariva Harbuz, a second grade teacher making an autumn leaves painting with her students. “All together we form a bubble. Teachers have full responsibility for their students, whether in the metro or outside in the streets. At least here in the metro, we feel safer because it is underground. That matters because we can be calm and not so stressed about it all.”

There are five such schools in Kharkiv. They depend on 186 teachers and tutors, 30 psychologists, 21 nurses, and 56 technical support staff members. But the children benefiting from that in-person contact remain the exception rather than the rule. Of the 111,000 students enrolled in the Kharkiv education system, only 52% are physically present in the area. The metro schools can accommodate only about 11,000 students.

“The children who are now attending first grade did not have a chance to go to preschool or kindergarten,” says Valerii Shepel, deputy head of education for Kharkiv. “This is their first real social interaction.”

He is clear on what he wants them to take away from the experience: “The ability to talk to each other and hear each other,” he says. “The main cause for conflict between people is the inability to hear each other.”

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“It is important to see other children”

Olena Andrushok and her crew are hard at work in Lyceum No. 11 of Izium, a town 77 miles southeast of Kharkiv. Women scrape clean walls in classrooms devoid of children. Others sweep the floor. Sawdust fills the air as men make repairs. Parts of the school remain in ruins, walls covered in soot.

This has been Ms. Andrushok’s school since 1978, so tears overtook her on seeing the extent of the damage when Ukrainian soldiers drove out Russian ones.

“If we put our noses down, we will never succeed in anything,” says the headmaster, who started as a first grader and then returned as a teacher. “We need to put our noses up and move forward, work hard, and hope for the best. We aspire to have offline education, but it all depends on front-line dynamics. Fifty kilometers [31 miles] is not that far away.”

The classrooms are empty. On paper, the school’s student population is higher than before the war. It used to count 460 students. Now it has 720 students assigned to it because other schools were destroyed. Of these, 420 are physically around Izium, and the remainder have fled abroad or to safer parts of Ukraine with their families. They all follow the Ukrainian school curriculum online as best they can – older ones drawing on habits built during the pandemic, little ones struggling to connect with the process.

The school remains an anchor point for a community that carries deep traumas linked to a Russian occupation marred by killings and torture. About 80% of high-rise buildings in Izium have been partially or completely destroyed, according to local authorities. The same applies to 30% of the picturesque shingle roof, single-story homes embedded in overgrowing gardens. Mines and unexploded ordinance remain a threat.

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Nine-year-old Semen Kaliuzhnyy is one of hundreds of children across Ukraine who spent substantive time sheltering in a basement. Now the brightly lit basement of Lyceum No. 11 provides him and 13 others with an entirely different experience. With the help of SOS Children’s Villages, a nongovernmental organization focused on protection and advocacy for children, the space has been converted into a digital learning hub complete with a ball pit, shelves of board games, and art supplies for the children to enjoy. Resources are still limited, but in the coming months local authorities hope to open more digital learning hubs and, if the situation is safe enough, resume regular classes in person.

The laughter of playtime during breaks is contagious. But to this serious boy, who chopped wood with his father to help warm the family over winter, the best treat is the cacao snack. He misses the meat soup served at the now-destroyed school kitchen. “It was really good,” he says.

Olena Cherniavska bikes to the hub twice a week for the sake of her 9-year-old daughter, Alina. Russian artillery pounded their village and forced them to flee to the Czech Republic. The desire to be close to her husband brought them back again. They rent a house because theirs was destroyed.

“Alina still worries that the alarms won’t ring in time,” shares Ms. Cherniavska as sirens disrupt math exercises. “But I am glad she has this space. It is important to see other children.”

Ms. Andrushok knows it will be a long time before the school is repaired and the situation allows all her children and teachers to return. But she is determined. “This is not the end of the road,” she says. “It is only the beginning.”


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