War in Ukraine Disrupts Education of Millions of Children

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KRAKOW, Poland — Across Ukraine, kindergartens have been bombed, elementary schools have been converted into shelters and in some cities like Mariupol, their grounds have even become makeshift graveyards.

As the war tears at the social institutions of the country, education has been one of the major casualties. Parents, teachers and school administrators are scrambling to provide classes for the 5.5 million school-age children who remain in the country, as well as for thousands of others who have fled to other countries.

In many places, students are connecting with their normal classrooms online, if their hometown schools are still operating and they have access to the internet. But with such vast displacement of teachers and students, the paths to learning are circuitous: In some cases, teachers who relocated within Ukraine are instructing students who have already fled the country, through a school system that they both left behind.

“The study is just like during the Covid times but with constant interruptions for the air sirens,” said Inna Pasichnyk, 29, who fled with her 11-year-old son, Volodymyr, to the Czech Republic from their home in the Donetsk region. He still dials into his classroom every day.

Alla Porkhovnyuk now teaches classes remotely to 11- to 13-year-olds after fleeing with her children from the port town of Yuzhne, near Odesa, to stay with relatives in central Ukraine. As well as teaching history, much of her job involves providing reassurance to the children amid fears about the war.

“They often ask when will the war end, when will they return to school?” she said. “I always smile and say that it will be soon — we have to be patient a little longer.”

Millions of children and teachers have been forced to flee their homes since the Russian invasion began in February. Some end up elsewhere in Europe as refugees and join classrooms in unfamiliar countries and in unfamiliar languages. Some have taken advantage of initiatives by Ukraine’s ministry of education that allow them to continue their studies online while sheltering abroad — even if it is not through their own school district.

More than 13,000 schools have instituted remote learning, and a few dozen have a blend of in-person and online learning. There are nearly 1,100 schools in areas where the educational process has been suspended entirely because the security situation is so tense, officials said.

Many classrooms across Ukraine are simply unusable, after being damaged or destroyed, or used in some areas for military purposes.

“Sadly, in Ukraine, schools continue to come under attack,” said Joe English, a communications specialist from UNICEF who has spent time in Ukraine during the war.

In times of war, classrooms can and should provide children with a sense of stability and act as a safe space to learn and to process the trauma, Mr. English said.

Ms. Pasichnyk and her son had been living in Kramatorsk, a city in the east that was the site of a devastating attack on a train station last week. When the war began, they fled their home in a rush, and Ms. Pasichnyk said she did not even remember how she packed her bag or what was in it.

“But Volodymyr even managed to take a pencil case and a notebook,” she said of her son. After they relocated and got settled, he restarted his education over video call.

When the air-raid siren starts, those still in the city have to take shelter, she said, and lessons can get derailed.

“Of course, this is not the same schooling as in the days before the fighting in our city,” Ms. Pasichnyk said, but she is happy that her son is at least getting back into a regular routine.

Ms. Porkhovnyuk, the history teacher, hopes to return home soon, but for now, she logs on daily to teach her classes. Around one-third of her students are still in Yuzhne, she said, while the rest have moved abroad or to safer parts of the country.

Classes were canceled there for several weeks, but resumed online in mid-March, she said. The classes have been cut to just 30 minutes, and students are not given any homework or tests. Her focus is less on imparting new knowledge and more on distracting the children from the war, Ms. Porkhovnyuk said.

“My students are constantly forced to hide in basements and bomb shelters,” she said. “It is impossible to get used to it.”

Olena Yurchenko, 24, who teaches 10- and 11-year-olds at a private school in Kyiv, the capital, said classes resumed online at the end of March. She said she was nervous for the first class, because she did not know if all of her students were safe.

“But the biggest fear was how to answer all the questions that children could ask,” Ms. Yurchenko said, like when the war would be over, would their families be safe, or what would happen in Kyiv. “They were more scared and confused than the adults.”

She has found it difficult mentally and emotionally to adjust to teaching again.

“It’s as if I’m setting up a barrier within myself and completely separating myself from the war and the news, in order to provide quality material for children and give the tenderness and empathy that I’m sure children really need right now,” she said.

While some schools have avoided the worst of the war, others have been caught up in the fighting, becoming the scenes of horror themselves.

As of Monday, more than 900 educational institutions have been damaged or in some cases completely destroyed by bombing and shelling, according to Ukraine’s Ministry of Education and Science.

In some cities in the east that are fully occupied by Russian forces, the Ukrainian authorities have reported disputes over what schools can teach, as the Russian authorities push for schools to overhaul their Ukrainian curriculums and instead teach in line with Russian schools. Some of these areas have large ethnic Russian populations.

Russian forces, for instance, detained the head of the education department in the occupied city of Melitopol, the mayor there said in late March, after educators pushed back against orders to change the curriculum.

The mayor, Ivan Fedorov, said in a video that Russian forces were trying to impose a shift in what schools taught, demanding that schools return to in-person classes that are taught in Russian.

“The occupiers go to schools, kindergartens and force our teachers and educators to resume the educational process using an incomprehensible Russian program,” Mr. Fedorov said in the video.

Students in the city have continued classes online, but local officials have stressed that it was too dangerous for children to return to the classroom. Melitopol, in a key stretch of southeastern territory between Russia-annexed Crimea and areas controlled by separatists in the east, has been occupied by Russian forces since the early days of the invasion.

Late last month, school directors across the city penned letters of resignation in opposition to the Russian orders, Mr. Fedorov said. But on Monday, the new local government installed by Russian forces said it planned to reopen schools, according to Russian state television. It is unclear if that happened, and Mr. Fedorov said local teachers were not cooperating.

Eight years of war with Russia-backed separatists had already taken its toll on Ukraine’s east. More than 750 schools in the region had been destroyed, damaged or forced to close even before the Russian invasion began on Feb. 24.

Save the Children, an international charity focused on bettering children’s lives, has warned that attacks on schools and other education facilities are a grave violation against children and can constitute a war crime.

Ms. Yurchenko, the private school teacher in Kyiv, hopes that the war will not drag on and that she and her students can return to their normal routines soon.

“But I am sure that for both children and adults, it will not be the same,” she said. “We have all changed — the children have grown up in front of our eyes.”

Nataliia Novosolova contributed reporting from Vinnytsia, Ukraine.

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