TThe children and teachers gathered on the grass outside School No. 2 in Borodianka on Thursday morning for the first day of the academic year. There were speeches and a reading of the Ukrainian national anthem, and as usual the girls wore white scrunchies in their hair, the boys white shirts. They brought flowers to give to their teachers.
But there are no classes this year in the classrooms of School No. 2. Borodianka, a town just north of Kiev, was occupied by Russian forces in March. The invading soldiers used the school as a base and destroyed it when they left.
The teachers described returning to the school after it was liberated to find that the soldiers had used several classrooms as toilets, left trash everywhere and unnecessarily destroyed whiteboards, gym equipment, TVs and computers. They had graffitied anti-Ukraine and pro-Russian slogans on the walls and dug trenches behind the school.
“The irony is that the only classroom that burned down was the Russian literature room,” Andriy Bondar, the school’s PE teacher, said during a tour of the building on Thursday.
Like many cities and towns in northern Ukraine, the residents of Borodianka endured a month of terror under occupation, including indiscriminate shelling, executions and torture. Near the school, a series of apartment buildings were razed to the ground when Russian planes dropped heavy bombs in early March, killing most of the residents. Each person seemed to tell their own horror story.
Thursday morning’s speeches continued on familiar themes of defiance against the odds and liberating Ukraine from the “enemy”. There was a minute of silence for those who had died defending the country. After the ceremony, the teachers and students returned home to start their classes on their smartphones and laptops. Only Year 1 will learn personally and join another freshman class at the only school in town that has remained undamaged.
“I wanted to do something fun for everyone, give a little positivity to the kids,” said Inna Romaniuk, the headteacher, who said the school was renovating and they hoped to reopen next year.
Almost all the windows of the school were covered with sheets of plastic, which had been blown out by the impact of strikes that hit the school building and the surrounding area.
Miraculously, the football field survived unscathed, says Bondar, the gym teacher. The school places a special emphasis on football and three of its students have made Ukraine’s national youth team.
Parents of the 6 million Ukrainian students who returned to school on Thursday were asked to choose between online and offline learning. Only schools in areas that are not regularly threatened with shelling will reopen.
While enough students opted for personal education and the schools fit for use, school boards have prepared for the new academic year by turning basements into shelters and training teachers on what to do in the event of an attack. All children attending in person are requested to bring an emergency bag with extra clothing, any medicines, a note from their parents and, for the younger children, a favorite toy.
Aside from the destruction, part of the challenge schools face is psychological. Teachers at school No. 2 said more than half of parents had chosen distance learning because they feared schools would be attacked.
“Our child is still afraid. She jumps up when she hears a car,” said Natasha Shuka, the mother of Tetiana, a teenager at school, who watched the ceremony from the sidelines. “I can speak for pretty much everyone that we still feel fear every time we hear something loud.”
“It’s all a process, we’ll try the first month and see how it goes,” said Svitlana Popova, the school’s math teacher, whose house was destroyed by a rocket and who now lives in her shed. Popova learned her first lesson of the day from her yard, using her phone and a blackboard leaning against a donated cabinet.
Schools across the country have been the target of repeated attacks. Ukraine’s Attorney General reported that 2,300 educational intuitions had been affected, 286 of which had been destroyed. Some have been used as bases by Russian troops for their ability to accommodate troops with their toilets, showers and canteens. Others were randomly destroyed, many of them in the first few days of the invasion.
In the areas of Ukraine that have been heavily attacked, students have received a worse education system, according to a report by the Center for Information Resilience, a London-based human rights organization. The report found that in the Kharkiv region alone, Russian troops were targeted by a boarding school for visually impaired students, a 218-year-old university library, a university training pool used by Olympic athletes and a nearly 100-year-old vocational school.
“The shelling not only destroyed classrooms, it blocked safe access to specialized equipment for children with disabilities, endangered books that had previously survived World War II, sabotaged Olympic dreams and disrupted education at colleges that have been operational for generations,” he said. the report. said.
According to Sergii Gorbachov, Ukraine’s education ombudsman, millions of people have fled Ukraine, including 22,000 teachers. There are about 440,000 left, but the problem is not so much the numbers as internal migration, he said. There are too many teachers in some places and not enough in others.
Additional reporting by Shaun Walker