“Sirens and explosions went off during classes”: A teacher's account from the frontline in Ukraine
Olesia poses for a photo in the middle of her classroom at a damaged school in Mykolaiv, Ukraine. Oleksandr Khomenko / Save the Children
Background: Since the war in Ukraine escalated in February 2022, children’s access to learning has been severely impaired. Around 3,800 education institution have been damaged in shelling and air strikes, and 380 schools have been destroyed. According to Save the Children estimates, 1.7 million children in Ukraine are forced to study online due to the continuous missile threats.
Olesia Zabrodska is a primary school teacher from Mykolaiv, a frontline city in Southern Ukraine. Since the war started, schools in the area have only been allowed to provide online classes. Olesia is a teacher for an inclusive class, where children with special education needs study alongside everyone else. While their school remains closed, Olesia and her students attend Save the Children’s Digital Learning Centre in Mykolaiv to spend time together and to keep up with crucial learning. This is Olesia’s account of what it is like to be a teacher in Ukraine today.
“On February 24, 2022, I woke up as normal. My home is in the suburbs, so I did not hear any explosions. I was halfway to the school where I work when messages from parents and other teachers started coming in: the war had started, and our city was being shelled.
I could not believe it.
For the next few weeks, my students and I were in limbo. Some of the children and their families stayed in Mykolaiv, but most fled to safer parts of Ukraine or even abroad. We were only able to restart classes in late March, and even then they were just online. We had gotten used to online learning during the COVID lockdown, but this time everything was different.
Now, many of my students are depressed, anxious, and terrified. On most nights they are woken up by sirens and explosions and are forced to take shelter. This has a huge impact on them both mentally and physically. Parents are also afraid, which of course impacts the children. How are children meant to have the capacity to learn, when families are focused on surviving?
Often, sirens and explosions go off during online classes. In the beginning there were very few underground bunkers in the city, so we were not able to take shelter like we do now. Instead, we followed the “behind two walls and away from windows” instruction and resumed the lesson. During these moments, my students would ask me to not leave them alone. To distract them from the atrocities taking place outside, we would read books out loud or just chat about different things.
We made a big effort so the students were able to communicate with me every day, even if it was just online. Later, when we got a bit more used to the situation, we began to meet in person as well. Coming together is so important for the children who remain in Mykolaiv, and of course has a positive effect on their studies.
Many students struggle with online learning as the family might only have one laptop or phone for several children to share, or the parents might need the devices for their own work. Online learning also makes the children feel exhausted. We try to do physical exercises and different activities, but sometimes this creates more issues; if a child is wearing headphones and suddenly gets up, the headphones may fall, the phone disconnects – it’s terrible.
One of my students, Khrystyna*, is a very talented girl and had excellent grades while at school. However, she struggles with online classes as she’s often home by herself while her mother is at work. When we meet in person, she works hard to catch up.
Khrystyna*, 9, poses for the portrait in the Digital Learning Center for teachers in Mykolaiv, Ukraine. Oleksandr Khomenko / Save the Children
Having Save the Children’s digital learning centre with all the electronic devices is very helpful for us. My students attend it three times a week to study and to just meet with friends. Even children who have left the city and are enrolled in other schools outside of Mykolaiv or Ukraine join us online. It is an important way to keep in touch with home. They miss their classmates and their school.
During the COVID pandemic, I saw how first graders were affected by the deprivation of face-to-face communication. They were acting out and could not communicate with each other. That is why I also take next autumn’s first grade class to the centre for pre-school activities – we can help children build their social skills before school even starts.
At the moment it is too dangerous in Mykolaiv to re-open schools in any capacity, but I really hope that we can return to in-person learning sooner rather than later. Our school has a reliable bomb shelter 6.5 metres underground. When the building was hit by missiles last August, the families who were in the basement thankfully remained unharmed.
The missile strike destroyed the entire fourth floor and the school needs costly repairs. I believe it is our common goal now – of parents, school staff, local and state authorities – to find ways to refurbish it. It is an investment in the future of our children, and without our children we have no future. Without their education, we have no future."
*names changed to protect identity
- In Ukraine, Save the Children helps to rehabilitate damaged schools, kindergartens, and shelters. The aid organisation also trains teachers to maintain children’s and their own wellbeing, develops offline applications so children can enjoy reading at any time, and distributes Education Kits which contain pens, colouring pencils, notepads, and educational materials.
- In frontline Mykolaiv region, Save the Children established a Digital Learning Centre for teachers so they have access to electronic devices whenever they need to hold online classes, and can host in-person lessons with some of their students. The aid organisation also runs mobile learning groups to bring education to children in remote communities severely affected by war. The aid organisation has established 80 Digital Learning Centres (DLC) across Ukraine for children to have safe and supportive environment that provides access to electronic devices and learning software.
- As of 29 September 2023, 363 education institutions in Ukraine have been destroyed, and 3,417 have been damaged.
- As per Save the Children estimates, more than 40% of children in Ukraine have not been able to go back to school fulltime this Autumn, and have to rely on online or hybrid learning due to a lack of bomb shelters in schools and threat of air strikes.
- As the second academic year in wartime started, the number of children set to attend in-person education is expected to increase to 2.3 million from 1.3 million last school year. But an estimated 1.7 million children – or 42% – still have limited access to in-person teaching, according to assessments by Ukraine’s Ministry of Education. This includes about one million students who will rely solely on remote learning.
For more information please contact:
- Vsevolod Prokofiev Vsevolod.Prokofiev@savethechildren.org (based in Kyiv)
- Anna Rauhanen Anna.Rauhanen@savethechildren.org (based in Kyiv)
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