Ukraine school year starts in midst of war

By Rostyslav Averchuk

Lviv, Ukraine, Sep 1 (EFE).- Millions of Ukrainian students returned to school on Thursday after the summer break. But, unlike in other years, pupils are returning to learning centers that must meet the challenge of guaranteeing both the children’s education and their safety in the midst of Russia’s bloody invasion.

“The scale of the challenge is unique,” Serhiy Gorbachev, Ukrainian ombudsman for educational affairs, tells Efe. The main challenge is getting students to attend classes, regardless of where they are, so schools are balancing in-person teaching with remote learning.

Kvitka, the six-year-old daughter of Maryana Sukhnatska in Lviv, went to class on Thursday for her very first day of school. It is a prospect that many youngsters find daunting, at the best of times, let alone with potential air raid sirens interrupting class time.

Maryana tells Efe that her school in Lviv has two well-equipped bomb shelters that can accommodate all the pupils.

“The children have already been taught before what to do in case of an air raid alarm and they already had a drill,” explains Maryana, who adds that she doesn’t think they will be any safer at home. “My daughter has been going to daycare since April, so she’s used to evacuations.”

She thinks online education can’t replace the communication and environment that is so important to children. With both parents working, the school also takes on the burden of organizing their children’s school day.

Closer to the front lines, Gorbachev explains, more schools have chosen to hold classes remotely, as Russian artillery could strike before the pupils and teachers make it to the bomb shelters.

All schools in northern Ukraine that are within 40 kilometers of the border with Belarus have been ordered to switch to remote learning, while 97% of parents in the southern Odesa region, regularly pounded by Russian missiles, have also opted for that form of teaching.

Gorbachev says that nearly 60% of Ukraine’s schools have prepared air-raid shelters — in most cases in their basements — although it remains to be seen how well they are prepared in reality.

The two years of adapting to the Covid pandemic have been like a blessing, Gorbachev tells Efe, as schools can use that experience in remote learning to help schools cope with the disruption caused by the Russian invasion, which has already destroyed some 270 learning centers.

“Without that experience the risk of a catastrophe in the education system would be very real,” Gorbachev says.

But even with the “Ukrainian School Online” platform, which includes video lessons covering much of the state school curriculum, he acknowledges significant educational losses caused by the war.

One problem lies in the fact that at least 641,000 Ukrainian schoolchildren — 15% of the total — are currently abroad having fled the country, according to the latest Education Ministry figures.

“They don’t know the local language and cannot study well, while losing their connection with Ukraine. The curriculum differs between countries and, of course, they do not include Ukrainian language, history or literature as subjects,” Gorbachev adds.

As long as they attend local schools it is very important that they can join online classes in Ukrainian during the day, he insists.

Agreements between states signed by Ukraine and countries hosting Ukrainian refugees could also recognize Ukrainian online education and free children from having to attend local schools full time, he suggests.

“The vast majority of those children are not going to stay abroad. They are going to return to Ukraine,” he says.

Gorbachev says that the approximately 22,000 of the country’s 440,000 or so teachers currently abroad could teach those Ukrainian children.

Another major challenge is to educate children who have been in Russian-occupied areas, where some 1,300 of Ukraine’s nearly 13,000 schools are located. Their teachers are forced to follow the Russian curriculum, but many parents try to avoid this and do their best to have their children study online with Ukrainian schools.

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