Education while at war: Ukrainian children return to school
When 14-year-old Artem* starts 9th grade at the end of September, he will be sitting in a classroom in Tbilisi, Georgia—some 1000 kilometers from his old school and classmates in Ukraine’s southern Khersons'ka oblast.
Artem is one of the four million Ukrainian children whose education was disrupted by the Russian invasion on February 24. Over the past eight months, educators, parents and officials in Ukraine and elsewhere have scrambled to get children back in the classroom—or, at the very least, studying online. It has been a herculean task.
The Ukraine Ministry of Education reports that 2135 schools and universities have been damaged and 270 have been destroyed due to the invasion. Schools in Ukrainian-controlled territory struggle to provide secure facilities and ensure teachers and families have the supplies they need to resume studies, either in person or online. In addition, an estimated six million people, including 665,000 students like Artem, have fled abroad and the government is eager to ensure they can study in Ukrainian as well.
To provide schooling, the education ministry is depending on a mix of approaches, including traditional classroom instruction as well as online studies and a hybrid of the two.
"864,500 children, whose parents believed in the school … will study in the full-time/offline mode. [They will] return to school,” announced Minister of Education and Science Serhii Shkarlet. “1.782 million children will study exclusively online, as determined by parents, schools, territorial communities… and 1.252 million will study in a mixed format.”
In Kyiv, many will study both online and in school at the 1252 schools that reopened for students on September 1.
Olena K.*,a teacher at a local school in Kyiv, was excited to see her students again in the classrooms.
“I am really happy that we will finally start teaching,” she told Chai Khana. “I did not see my students for more than six months.”
“I think that it was a great decision to create a mixed format. We should start coming back to a normal life. Our school has a shelter and is ready for any emergent situations, thus, we can guarantee our students’ safety. We do not force the parents to choose this format, it is their choice, they can choose other available formats. Our school can offer fully online studies or distance learning.”
The transition has been more complicated for families and teachers from communities that are currently occupied by Russian forces.
Olena Zamenyagre, the director of School #8 in Melitopol, says teachers have been working hard to keep children engaged and find a way to return them to regular classes in September. The first challenge was immediately after the Russians occupied the area.
“After the occupation, we tried to visit schools every day. We had two groups with five people in each, one worked from morning till the end of the day, another worked at night… We were trying to prevent the destruction of our school and keep it clean,” she says. “Also, we tried to create a help center at school. We brought food and texted the children that they should come and use the library or just come to play. This initiative lasted for one month. Then the Russian authorities who controlled the town forbade teachers from visiting schools.”
The fighting and occupation disrupted internet service, making it difficult for teachers to stay in touch with their pupils as families sought safety. Local children were unable to study for six months, Olena notes.
During that time, she also moved abroad and started reaching out to Melitopol teachers to create a site for the children and plan online classes.
“The Russian authorities appointed a new director for School #8. They want to start teaching children according to the Russian curriculum,” Olena explains. “Unfortunately, the connection issue has not been resolved. In some places in town, people can connect to the internet, but in order to reach Ukrainian sites, a VPN should be used, so for now, the only solution for local people to access Ukrainian lessons is to find a connection and use VPN.”
In addition, families and teachers often lack the basic supplies they need to study, including laptops to study online.
“I only have a phone. I do not have any other equipment. Our local [Ukraine Melitopol] administration is offering assistance and is ready to buy laptops or reimburse those who have already bought them, so teachers can continue teaching without difficulties,” she said. But the initiative does not extend to students, making it difficult for them to access Ukrainian classes.
The education ministry has worked with neighboring countries to ensure classes are available for children abroad, as well.
Oksana* from Khersons'ka oblast in Ukraine, found a solution for her son Artem after they settled in Tbilisi. Artem is one of the Ukrainian students who registered at School 41 as part of a special program financed by the Georgian education ministry.
Oksana enrolled Artem at the school since Ukrainian education was banned in her native village after it was occupied by Russian forces earlier this year.
“At the end of September, my son will go to the Georgian-Ukrainian school, it is a Georgian school but with the Ukrainian sector. The study will start in the middle of September. We will study in the Ukrainian language with Ukrainian teachers,” she told Chai Khana.
The Ukrainian program started in April 2022 to help children continue school according to the Ukrainian state curriculum. The students will study in the second half of the day once the Georgian school's lessons are finished. Also, students will learn Georgian as a foreign language, to help them adapt more easily to life in Georgia.
Regardless of where they are, this school year will be a challenge for Ukrainian children, noted Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskiy. But despite the difficulties, he stressed it is vital for children to continue their studies. “Someone is far from home - in other regions of Ukraine. Someone is far from home - in other countries. Someone is [studying] remotely, in an online format. Someone is at their home school or at their university, but still not at peace. However, it is important that the school year begins,” he said. “It is important that learning continues. And that knowledge about Ukraine is not interrupted.”
* Names have been changed out of concern for the safety of the respondents and their family members.
This article was produced in the framework of Chai Khana Fellowship program - Summer 2022
The networking event and the mentorship of the fellows was supported by the Federal Foreign Office and the Civil Society Cooperation program, implemented by the Deutsche Gesellschaft e. V.