Education despite shelling and air raid alerts: how Ukrainian schoolchildren continue to study

In English

ICRC staff meeting with teachers and kids at one school

Text and Pictures: T. OLIINYK/ICRC


School desks. Morning meetings with teachers. Noisy corridors ringing with children’s laughter. Daily homework. Backpacks overflowing with textbooks, sweets, and toys. Such were the usual school days, familiar to everyone. Before the escalation, children all over Ukraine had a childhood in a circle of peers and best friends, with favorite lessons and tests that everyone was worried about, at the desks of spacious schools where there was always a sense of security.

First, it was disrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic, and later by the escalation of the Russia-Ukraine armed conflict in 2022. This changed the lives of all Ukrainians, including children who witnessed hostilities and were forced to instantly grow up against their own will. Many of them had to be displaced, either within Ukraine or abroad. Now, most schools are empty, with windows covered with sheets of plywood, damaged roofs, and walls. Some of them have been destroyed by shelling.

In most of them, time has frozen with the inscription on the blackboard – “23 February. Classwork,” and it will be a long time before schoolchildren return to get the education they’re entitled to.

We have collected several stories of teachers and families from front-line towns and villages that are still suffering from the effects of the conflict and who nevertheless ensure that their children have continuous access to education. And even to a childhood, which cannot be stopped. And each child has a right.

Each of these stories reflects the approach of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to helping children access education in times of armed conflict. The people and communities depicted in this article have all received assistance from the ICRC to support the provision of education to affected communities in Ukraine.

Kruhliak family, Sumy city

A happy family with tablets donated by ICRC

Liubov Petrivna took custody of her two grandchildren, who only have her. For Liubov, the most important thing is to do everything so that Pavlo and Kseniia have a good life, no matter what. For Pavlo and Kseniia, it is crucial to be worthy of their grandmother.

As military hostilities were raging on, these children were left without parents. Their father died last year. The brother and sister prefer not to talk about their mother. Their grandmother is now the one who takes care of them, helps them with their homework, takes them to beading and dancing classes, and gives them all her unconditional love. Kseniia and Pavlo unconsciously call their grandmother “mom”, which sounds gentle and sonorous. The woman only smiles slightly in response. For her, her grandchildren are a whole world that she holds on to.

This family lives in Sumy. Kseniia is in the third grade and Pasha is in the fifth. Their grandmother says that the children really like going to school, their friends are there, and they do interesting activities. Now children study in a mixedA child smiles with joy, showing her new tablet donated by ICRC manner using remote and face-to-face learning. It is difficult for the family to organize the online educational process at home: they have only one old smartphone for two students.

This creates additional difficulties for them, as sharing one technological device is restrictive for children of different ages and abilities. The ICRC donated the family two tablets so that Kseniia and Pavlo have constant access to lessons and continue to study even outside of school.

“During the time of distance learning, children studied with the help of a phone, but it is already old and keeps running out of memory. Sometimes it was not possible to join a lesson at all or sign in to one’s personal account to see the homework. Now with the new tablets, I’m sure we’ll be fine. They study with pleasure, always help each other. We are very happy,” says Liubov Petrivna.

Pavlo and Kseniia do not yet know what they will do when they grow up, because such active and cheerful children want to master many professions at the same time. However, they know for sure that they will do all they can to make their grandmother proud of them.

Nina Kiparenko, Lyptsi village, Kharkiv region

“I worked as a physics and mathematics teacher for 46 years. Now I am 69 years old and teaching again, because even in times of war, children must continue to study. We are also responsible for their education.”

The village of Lyptsi was badly affected by hostilities and was under the control of Russian armed forces for more than six months. Before February 2022, more than five thousand people lived here, now there may not even be a thousand. Four schools in the community work remotely, but not all families have access to the Internet: the networks have been damaged, and local children have no other way to study. But there is an irresistible desire to return to school. Local teacher Nina Pavlivna, who is already retired, conducts classes with children of different ages in the office of the village council to catch up on missed lessons and helps schoolchildren study.

“The parents themselves asked me to work with their children. I agreed because I couldn’t refuse, children must study. We agreed to conduct lessons in the office of the village council, there is a shelter there if something happens. At first, we studied once a week, but each time, more and more children came. So, we decided to organize classes twice a week, separately for mathematics and physics.

They try very hard to understand everything, ask a lot of questions, and sometimes we look for answers together. I warned the parents at the beginning that I would not grade the children, they have their own teacher who will do that, and I would help them at least not to forget the school curriculum. After all, not everyone can study online these days. In this makeshift school, no one monitors attendance, but no student has ever missed a class.”

The woman’s only request in the conversation with our colleagues was for an ordinary blackboard to write formulas and laws of physics, draw graphs and build geometric figures. Nina Pavlivna will continue to work in her school, which is small, but so important for students who come here not only to study, but also to communicate with each other. About 50 children currently live in Lyptsi.

All the playgrounds in the village have been destroyed, and it is dangerous to be far from home – explosions can be heard nearby every day. But here, in a small school, in the middle of the administrative building a few steps from the shelter, Nina Pavlivna has managed to create a space, albeit tiny, that creates a sense of security and normality. It gives schoolchildren a few hours a week of their previous lives in which everything is fine.

Natalia Andrushchenko, acting headmistress of the Pravdynska special school, Ivanivka village, Sumy region

“On the night of 23-24 February 2022, there were 32 students in our school. Some of them were from the city of Sumy, and some from the city of Krasnopillia. Bridges were blown up immediately, some parents quickly picked up their children while they still could. 15 children remained at the school and for 18 long days we literally lived with them in the basement. Airplanes were flying above us, shelling the nearby town of Okhtyrka. At one point, it seemed to me that we would never get out of that basement.”

Children with intellectual developmental disabilities study at the Pravdynska special school. They need an individual approach to learning and a lot of attention. This year, the institution was almost left without heating during the cold season. It was not possible to heat the large, spacious buildings of the school, kindergarten, and dormitory, but this is the only special school in the district, and it must work.

“Last year, we sawed wood ourselves, the whole team gathered firewood to heat the shelter. I have a huge responsibility for all the children, so we do everything possible to continue the education process and provide students with everything they need.”

This year, buildings will be heated thanks to a generator delivered by ICRC colleagues on the eve of the start of the heating season. Children currently study in a mixed format. The school staff have repaired the shelter everyone goes to during every air raid alert. No one here ignores the sirens. Nothing is valued more than human life.

And in the children’s shelter, the same interactive classes await with textbooks, toys, flowers on the walls, and in the future – a cinema hall with a projector donated by the ICRC.

“We will show the children films, cartoons, and play music so that they are not afraid and do not hear the sounds of explosions outside. Here we fight every day for our children and their future.”

Mariia, Lyptsi village, Kharkiv region

From early childhood, Mariia has had problems with speech and learning. But despite this, she is always smiling, cheerful and friendly, because she knows that together with her family, they can overcome all difficulties. Her closest people are her mother and younger brother.

Last year, they survived shelling and the nearby presence of military hostilities, as the village was on the frontline and retaken after being under control of Russian armed forces. They  did not leave their shelter for several months due to constant danger. This year, the girl turned 13, but due to the conflict, she could not finish the 5th grade.

“Mariia needs access to offline classes with a teacher specialized in working with children with special educational needs, like herself. It is difficult for us to find such a specialist, in particular because of our financial situation, so I try to at least work with her at home on my own. Mariia is very inquisitive, sincere, she likes drawing and loves solving puzzles. I would really like to make sure that there is never such a fear in her life again and that she continues to study,” says the girl’s mother, Iryna.

Currently, the woman has no income, as it is not easy to find a job in the community because of the hostilities, there are simply no surviving businesses here. Mariia’s mother makes every effort for her daughter’s development through daily practical classes, because even online classes are often difficult to join due to problems with the Internet.

With the support of the ICRC, Mariia has received a specialized educational kit with such as a track maze, brushes, paints and pencils, canvas, colouring books, and anti-stress colouring books. This should help her to be better prepared for her classes and to develop reading and counting skills, as well as handwriting, arithmetic, and drawing.

With a sincere smile, the girl promises that she will work hard because she is convinced that one day, she will return to school to be reunited with her classmates and enjoy noisy breaks and lessons that will no longer be interrupted by air alarms.



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