War in Ukraine has another front line: the classroom

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KYIV — When the Russians first came to the school where Larysa taught history in southeastern Ukraine, they asked for all the history and Ukrainian language textbooks.

The director refused to hand them over.

The school closed — but then reopened virtually on September 1, with up to 80 percent of its 700 pupils attending online. More than half of them remain in occupied Berdiansk in Zaporizhzhia region, said Larysa, who left in April for the Odesa region.

“Some go to Russian school and do homework with us,” she said. “We do all we can to make it incognito. We deleted all electronic lists, never put up any photos or screenshots or write names.” 

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Larysa did not give her surname or name the school for security reasons. Half of her colleagues are still on occupied territory and teaching online, risking imprisonment or worse from occupying forces — two were already detained and later released in September.

“They’re holding lessons in extreme conditions,” Larysa said. “Some were saved just because someone was on lookout. The wife was teaching a lesson and her husband was watching from the window so that she had time to hide everything before they came.”

After reopening in autumn 2021, following the lifting of COVID-19 restrictions, Ukrainian schools have moved mostly back online following Russia’s full-scale invasion in February. But from bombs to blackouts to displacement to occupation, millions of Ukrainian children and young adults face an education interrupted, with educators struggling to work under desperate conditions.

Since the beginning of Russia’s invasion, more than 3,000 educational institutions in Ukraine — 10 percent of the total — have been damaged or destroyed, according to the Ministry of Education. School buildings are at risk of shelling or lack heating after massive damage to the country’s energy infrastructure, while blackouts and interrupted internet connections hamper learning from home.

Meanwhile, thousands of students and teachers living under occupation face pressure to switch to Russian schooling.

Education, with its propaganda potential to influence young hearts and minds, has become a front line in the war.

Ideological battle

Crimea, under Russian control for more than eight years, is an example of how Russian education in occupied territories aims — with eventual success — to erase Ukrainian identity and militarize children.

History lessons there claim that Ukraine was always part of Russia. Army cadet courses and classes sponsored by law enforcement agencies start for children as young as six, says Maria Sulyanina from the Crimean Human Rights Group.

Since the beginning of Russia’s invasion, more than 3,000 educational institutions in Ukraine — 10 percent of the total — have been damaged or destroyed | Genya Savilov AFP via Getty images

“We see that these children who were small kids when the occupation started, after eight years they have been turned into Russians,” she said.   

Meanwhile, Ukraine has steadily been moving its educational system away from that inherited from the Soviet Union. It has relegated Russian to foreign language teaching; moved Russian literature to part of the study of world literature; and revised history courses to include events like the Holodomor, the Soviet-caused famine in the 1930s that killed millions of Ukrainians and is still largely denied in Russia.

Yet despite Russia’s carrot-and-stick approach — from September, parents in recently occupied territories are paid a one-off of 10,000 rubles (€145) to send their children to Russian school, plus 4,000 per month that they stay — many families are sticking to a Ukrainian education for their children, and teachers are still teaching it.

But the war has made Ukrainian education extremely tenuous.

When Russia invaded and occupied Kupiansk, a town in Ukraine’s eastern Kharkiv region, the vocational school where Viktoria Scherbakova taught was pressured to switch to the Russian system, and later damaged and looted.

Now, her classroom — and office — is the kitchen table at a small rented flat she shares with her two children and elderly parents in Kyiv, after she and her children fled the Russian occupation. The flat is also her daughter’s Kharkiv university virtual lecture hall and her son’s Kyiv ninth-grade classroom on days when air raid sirens sound and he can’t attend school.

The motor transport vocational college in Kupiansk where Scherbakova taught, which offered practical training for mechanics and drivers along with courses in transport logistics to some 300 pupils aged 14 to 18, exists as a displaced, virtual entity, with no home of its own. Although she is offering lessons online, Scherbakova doesn’t know if she’ll ever be able to teach there again in person.

“We’re not in Kyiv, not in Kharkiv, not in Kupiansk,” she said. “We’re not anywhere.”

The education front line

As of October, about 1,300 schools were on Ukrainian territories occupied by Russia. Teachers have been targeted for collaboration and detained, threatened and mistreated. Staff have been sent to Russia or Russian-occupied Crimea for retraining in the Russian education system or told they would be replaced by teachers from Russia if they refused to work.

In Kupiansk, after the then-mayor surrendered to the Russians on February 27, educational establishments stayed open. However, many parents kept their children out of school — including Scherbakova, whose 14-year-old son stayed at home although she herself continued to work at the college.

Apart from hoisting a Russian flag outside, the occupiers left them alone — until June. But by the end of term, it became clear that staff would be forced to decide: leave, or start the next school year under the Russian system.

“And if you didn’t work for them, it wasn’t clear what the consequences would be,” said Scherbakova. “If you openly said you didn’t support them, you would end up in their prisons or cellars.”

Many families are sticking to a Ukrainian education for their children, and teachers are still teaching it | Sergey Bobok/AFP via Getty images

One school director in Kupiansk, who refused to open her school after occupation, spent almost a month detained in the basement of the police station.

Of nearly 50 teaching and administrative staff in the vocational college, only seven refused to work with the Russian occupying authorities, according to Scherbakova.

“I’m ashamed of my college,” she said.      

Spurred by the apparent ultimatum, Scherbakova and her children managed to leave Kupiansk for free Ukrainian territory in early June. The college was moved to operate virtually in Ukrainian-controlled territory, with her role shifting to acting director. With a colleague, they printed diplomas for those graduates who were reachable — 35 out of 53 — and developed a program to start the new teaching year.

But when she and a colleague started calling students, they found out that the teenagers had been enrolled to start the year in the college in Kupiansk — under the Russian system.

The physical and the virtual college started teaching parallel courses on September 1. Eight days later, Ukrainian forces took back Kupiansk.

When Scherbakova went back to Kupiansk after liberation, she found that though the college had been completely looted of its equipment and training vehicles, the library was full of untouched new Russian textbooks.

Some of the college staff who had remained in Kupiansk fled to Russia. Others got in touch with Scherbakova asking if they could work with her.

“At first I didn’t have an answer. I’m not the SBU [Ukrainian security services], I can’t judge them,” she said.

Some are under suspicion of collaboration. Later, the Ministry of Education clarified that teachers who had collaborated or brought in the Russian education system were banned from teaching. According to Ukrainian legislation on collaboration adopted in early September, teachers who engage in Russian propaganda in schools can be sentenced to prison terms. By mid-September, 19 proceedings had been opened against teachers in Ukraine.

Back in Kyiv, Scherbakova conducts online lessons and end-of-term exams amid daily power cuts since Russia began bombing essential infrastructure in Ukraine. 

Her students, scattered around the country by war, face power outages too. Others, displaced abroad, are fitting lessons around schooling in Germany or England. And some remain in Kupiansk, recently liberated from occupation, where there is no internet, and the town comes under Russian shelling morning and night.

Viktoria Scherbakova conducts online lessons and end-of-term exams amid daily power cuts since Russia began bombing essential infrastructure in Ukraine | Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP via Getty images

“Those ones, all I can do is call and ask: ‘Are you alive? How did the night go? This is your exam question, just tell me something, whatever comes into your head,’” said Scherbakova.

“Of course, I can’t give them good marks. But I can’t abandon them.”

Lost generation

The physical challenges of war and the ideological battle as Russia seeks to impose its education system threaten the very basis of education in Ukraine: participation.

Scherbakova says her students, many of whom come from low-income families, are dropping out of online courses. “They need to survive. They dropped everything to find work,” she said. “Many of them had to leave their homes, and they need to live on something.”

Teachers are leaving the profession too — due to migration, retirement, low salaries, and war-related stresses and bans. The Kharkiv region has lost nearly 3,000 of 21,500 teachers since February, according to its education department.

In Kupiansk, as in many liberated towns and villages, the will to learn is not matched by the necessary infrastructure of electricity, internet and teachers. Children can only get an education if they move.

“We don’t want to leave. This is our land, and we want to live here,” said Iryna Protsenko, who was recently collecting humanitarian aid in Kupiansk with her daughter Zlata, 6. The family ran a small dairy business in the town before the war and stayed throughout occupation. “But now I’m afraid we will have to leave, because of school.”

Zlata, smiling shyly next to her mother, wants to learn, said Protsenko. She should start school this year. For the moment they read books together at home — easier now that electricity has been restored. “But she’s lonely.” 

Ukrainian children were already starved of live interaction due to pandemic restrictions. Now, with only online teaching, plus the interrupted routines and safety restrictions of war, they are becoming increasingly stressed and withdrawn.

“It’s not so much the quality of education as the communication. They are losing socialization,” said Larysa, the teacher from Berdiansk.

Some parents compare the situation to that of their grandparents, who missed years of education during World War II. When the war was over, they had to study together with much younger children, earning themselves the name ‘pererostki,’ or ‘overgrown.’

“I think it will be like my grandma,” said Maria Varenikova, a journalist living in Kyiv with her son Nazar, 11. “Something will have to be figured out in Ukraine, given that for years children don’t have an education because of COVID, and now war.”

“They try hard and worry so much. They are lost children” said teacher Viktoria Scherbakova | Sergey Bobok/AFP via Getty images

Nazar’s school opened in person this September, keeping going with generators, bottled water and a basement bomb shelter. But Nazar is repeating the largely lost previous school year.

Scherbakova’s son, on top of the trauma of fleeing his home, had to cram in most of the last school year in extra classes over the summer in order to progress to the next grade in Kyiv.

“They try hard and worry so much,” said Scherbakova. “They are lost children.”