Under sirens, threats, Ukraine’s children go back to school

September 1 marks the start of the Ukrainian school year. Across the country, “first bell” events celebrate a day of knowledge, when the first bells of the school year signal the opening of classrooms across the country.  

Vlad, who lives in a suburb of the capital Kyiv, remembers celebrating the day at his school when he was a pupil. This year he attended with his own children, age six and eight, dressed in traditional festive clothes. 

“At 9am all the classes line up and the school authorities give speeches. Then an older student comes in carrying a young student on their shoulders, who is ringing a bell. They circle past all the teachers and students in the line and this symbolises the start of the new school year,” he said. 

This year, in addition to the old traditions, Vlad’s children had some newer routines. On the first day of school, the Ukrainian father brought an emergency bag for each of his children, to be kept in the school’s air raid shelter throughout the academic year.  

Suggested items inside include a blanket, a respiratory mask, essential medicines and a favourite toy. 

For Kyiv resident Olga, getting ready for the new school year was easier this year than 12 months ago. “The previous year a lot of shops were closed,” she said. “This year, the situation is better and it’s possible to buy clothes and footwear for school.”  

Her daughter’s private school is also better prepared: after Russian attacks on infrastructure caused widespread power outages last winter, the school now has a generator ready to keep the lights on. 

But the first day of the new academic year did not go as planned. After her eight-year-old daughter arrived at school, Olga received a message to inform her that due to a city-wide bomb threat on all schools, all students and staff had been evacuated to a nearby square on police orders.  

Sirens and shelters 

Such disruptions have become typical since Russia launched its full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine. Air raid sirens went off over Kyiv early Friday, rousing residents from their beds and into shelters or safe spaces. 

“Sometimes there can be three sirens in a night,” Olga said. The next day, it can be difficult for her daughter to concentrate on her studies. 

Sirens also continue through the day, disrupting lessons. “During the siren, the educational process needs to be stopped and all the students go to the shelter,” said Anna Sydoruk, COO at Osvitoria, a Ukraine-based NGO working on education. “If circumstances allow, they can continue lessons there.” 

All schools in Ukraine are now supposed to have a certified air shelter onsite, although some have not yet been able to rehabilitate basement spaces. 

“A shelter is now the main criteria for choosing a school,” said Iryna, living in Kyiv, whose 11-year-old daughter enrolled in new school this year since the old one didn’t have a shelter onsite. Now, she says, “If there’s a rocket attack, I know my child is safe because she can be taken to the shelter immediately.” 

Although safe in the shelter, circumstances often do not allow for uninterrupted study.  

There may not be enough space for all students to study comfortably, it can get noisy with all classes studying side-by-side, or the attack underway might be too nerve-wracking for teachers and students to concentrate on anything else. 

Children study in an air-raid shelter in a school basement after an alarm signal in Kyiv, Ukraine, on March 23, 2023. © Genya Savilov, AFP

Studying online and in-person

Vlad and Olga are grateful their children attend school in and around Kyiv.  

Anti-air defence systems, such as the Patriot missile systems, have now drastically reduced deadly strikes in the capital, although there is still a risk from falling debris from destroyed missiles and drones. 

Better defence systems make it more likely that their children can attend school safely, in-person. Many pupils in Kyiv now study online only if there is an air strike warning that prevents them or their teachers from getting to school in the morning.  

Elsewhere in the country, the situation is different. Across Ukraine, only about a third of school-age children are attending classes fully in person, a third are learning completely online and the remainder use a mixed approach, according to a UNICEF report released on Wednesday. 

In eastern and southern Ukraine, students are less likely to have access to in-person learning and the ability to socialise regularly with classmates. More than 1,300 schools have been completely destroyed in Ukraine, mostly in the east of the country, according to UNICEF. 

This September, regions that are “close to the frontline will start the school year online only,” said Sydoruk.

Read moreThe Ukrainian teachers giving classes from the front line

But there is a nationwide determination to maintain access to education, whatever the circumstances.  

Projects run by NGOs such as Osvitoria and Space of Knowledge aim to improve access to digital materials and teaching resources. 

In the eastern metropolis of Kharkiv – where some Russian missiles can reach the city in under a minute, not leaving enough time to get from classrooms to shelters – Mayor Ihor Terekhov said on Tuesday that 60 underground classrooms had been built in metro stations. 

The metro classrooms created space for more than 1,000 children to study in-person, said city authorities. 

A woman looks at a classroom set up for pupils in a subway station in Kharkiv, Ukraine, on September 1, 2023. © Sergey Bobok, AFP


Knowledge gaps 

Proximity to fighting makes it harder to study in general.  

In Mykolaiv, a southern port city near the Kherson frontline, a May 2023 study found that, on average, children were spending just 16 hours per week on educational activities of any kind, and 50% of children spent less than 10 hours a week learning. 

The broader picture of education in Ukraine seems to be one of growing knowledge gaps.  

“All children of Ukraine have their experience of war in one way or another. Stress and traumatic experiences affect their learning, concentration and memory,” said Maryna Chaban, a psychologist at Voices of Children, a charitable foundation providing psychological support for children in Ukraine.  

Many pupils are falling behind. Around half of Ukraine’s teachers have reported a deterioration in students’ abilities in language, reading and mathematics, UNICEF said. 

In Kyiv, Vlad’s children were enrolled in a new school this academic year, in part due to high staff turnover in their former institution. 

In the early days of the war, Ukraine’s ministry for education and science estimated 22,000 teachers had left the country. Around 900 educators joined Ukraine’s armed forces.  

To make up for the shortfall, the Ukrainian government launched the Teach for Ukraine programme to fast-track graduates from any discipline into teaching roles.  

But last year, Vlad’s seven-year-old daughter’s class was taught by an undergraduate law student. “There is a huge lack of professionals,” he said.  

‘Tomorrow we have lessons’ 

Younger pupils in Ukraine may barely remember school before the full-scale Russian invasion began. Older students have already studied through two years of disruption due to the Covid pandemic.  

Flexibility and adaptability are now everyday skills, for teachers and students. “Before, in governmental schools it was very traditional where teachers teach and kids listen,” said Olesia Bozhko, founder of Space of Knowledge, a Ukrainian education NGO. “We value communication so much more now.” 

In Kyiv, Olga’s daughter was “in a good mood” on Friday, despite a day of school disrupted by bomb threats. “It was all presented as a fun adventure and an opportunity to go for a walk outside school,” Olga said. 

Vlad’s children tend to find their trips to the school shelter “fun” as all the students get to go there together.

In many cases, schools have become an important source of reassurance and consistency for students living through war.  

“When this invasion started, everything changed in these children’s lives,” said Sydoruk. “It is so important for them to have lessons every day and to see the teacher. It is not just about knowledge, it’s about psychological support.” 

“We live in conditions where you don’t know what to expect from the next moment,” added Chaban. “But learning instils faith in tomorrow; tomorrow will come, tomorrow we have lessons.” 

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