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KYIV — When Russians first came to the school where Larissa 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 80 percent of its 700 students attending online. More than half of them are in the capture of Berdyansk in the Zaporizhia region, Larissa said, having left for the Odessa region in April.

“Some Russians go to school and do homework with us,” she said. “We do all we can to make this a secret. We’ve deleted all electronic lists, never put up any photos or screenshots or put up names.

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

“They are taking lessons in extreme circumstances,” said Larissa. “Some were saved just because someone was watching. The wife was teaching a lesson and her husband was watching through the window so that he would have time to hide everything before their arrival.

Ukrainian schools are mostly back online following Russia’s full-scale invasion in February, with plans to reopen in the autumn of 2021 after COVID-19 restrictions were lifted. But from bombs to blackouts to displacement to occupation, millions of Ukrainian children and young adults face a disrupted education, with teachers struggling to function in desperate conditions.

According to the Ministry of Education, since the start of Russia’s invasion, more than 3,000 educational institutions in Ukraine – 10 percent of the total – have been damaged or destroyed. are school buildings threat of fire Or the lack of heating following massive damage to the country’s energy infrastructure, while blackouts and disrupted internet connections hinder learning from home.

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

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

ideological battle

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

History lessons there claim that Ukraine was always a part of Russia. Army cadet courses and classes sponsored by law enforcement agencies begin for children as young as six, says Maria Sulina of 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. Zhenya Savilov AFP via Getty Images

“We see that these kids who were little kids when the business started, eight years later they’ve been turned into Russians,” she said.

Meanwhile, Ukraine has been steadily moving its educational system away from the education it inherited from the Soviet Union. It has removed Russian from foreign language teaching; made Russian literature part of the study of world literature; and revised history curricula to include events such as the Holodomor, a 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 payment of 10,000 rubles (€145) to send their children to a Russian school, with 4,000 per month on which they live – many families are sticking to a Ukrainian education for their children, and teachers are still teaching it.

But the war has left Ukrainian education extremely vulnerable.

When Russia invaded and occupied Kupiansk, a town in Ukraine’s eastern Kharkiv region, the vocational school where Victoria Shcherbakova taught was forced to convert to the Russian system, and was later damaged and looted Gone.

Now, her classroom – and office – is the kitchen table in a tiny rented flat she shares with her two children and elderly parents in Kyiv, built after she and her children fled the Russian occupation. The flat is also his daughter’s Kharkiv University virtual lecture hall and his son’s Kyiv ninth-grade classroom when the air raid sirens sound and he can’t go to school.

The Motor Transport Vocational College in Kupiansk where Shcherbakova taught, which offered courses in transport logistics as well as practical training for mechanics and drivers to about 300 pupils aged 14 to 18, as a dislocated, virtual unit Exists, which has no home of its own. Although she’s offering online lessons, Shcherbakova doesn’t know if she’ll ever be able to teach there in person.

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

front line of education

By October, about 1,300 schools were in the Ukrainian territories occupied by Russia. Teachers were targeted and detained, threatened and abused for their cooperation. Employees have been sent to Russia or Russian-occupied Crimea for re-training in the Russian education system or told they will be replaced by teachers from Russia if they refuse to work.

In Kupiansk, the then-mayor surrendered to the Russians on 27 February, with educational establishments remaining open. However, many parents kept their children out of school—including Shcherbakova, whose 14-year-old son stayed home even though she herself worked at college.

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

“And if you didn’t work for them, it was unclear what the consequences would be,” Shcherbakova said. “If you openly say that you did not support them, you will end up in their prisons or dungeons.”

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Many families stick to Ukrainian education for their children, and teachers still teach it Sergey Bobok/AFP via Getty Images

A school director in Kupiansk, who refused to open his school after the occupation, was locked in the basement of the police station for nearly a month.

According to Scherbakova, only seven of the approximately 50 teaching and administrative staff at the vocational college refused to work with the Russian occupation authorities.

“I am ashamed of my college,” she said.

Prompted by the apparent ultimatum, Shcherbakova and her children managed to leave Kupiansk for liberated Ukrainian territory in early June. The college was transferred to Ukrainian controlled territory to operate virtually, with his role being transferred to that of acting director. With a colleague, he printed diplomas for the graduates who were accessible—35 of 53—and developed a schedule for starting the new academic year.

But when she and a colleague began calling the students, they learned that the teenagers were enrolled under the Russian system to start the year at college in Kupiansk.

The physical and virtual colleges started teaching parallel courses on 1 September. Eight days later, Ukrainian forces retook Kupiansk.

When Shcherbakova returned to Kupiansk after the liberation, she found that although the college’s equipment and training vehicles had been completely looted, the library was filled with untouched new Russian textbooks.

Some of the college staff who remained in Kupiansk fled to Russia. Others got in touch with Shcherbakova and asked if they could work with her.

“At first I had no answer. I am not SBU [Ukrainian security services]I can’t judge them,” she said.

Some are skeptical of cooperation. Later, the Ministry of Education clarified that teachers who had collaborated with or brought in the Russian education system were banned from teaching. According to the Ukrainian Law on Cooperation 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 initiated against teachers in Ukraine.

back in kiev Shcherbakova conducts online lessons and end-of-term exams amid daily power cuts since Russia began bombing essential infrastructure in Ukraine.

His students spread across the country also face power cuts due to the war. Others, displaced overseas, are learning about schooling in Germany or England. And some live in Kupiansk, recently liberated from the occupation, where there is no internet, and the city comes under Russian shelling morning and night.

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Victoria Shcherbakova 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 people, all I can do is call and ask: ‘Are you alive? How was the night? This is your exam question, just tell me something, whatever comes to your mind,'” Shcherbakova Told.

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

lost generation

The physical challenges of the war and the ideological battles Russia seeks to impose on its education system threaten the fundamental 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 needed to survive. They dropped everything to find work,” she said. “Many of them had to leave their homes, and they needed something to live on.”

Teachers are also leaving the profession – due to migration, retirement, low pay and war-related stress and restrictions. According to the Kharkiv region’s education department, nearly 3,000 of the 21,500 teachers have died since February.

In Kupiansk, like many free towns and villages, the desire to learn is not matched by the necessary infrastructure of electricity, internet and teachers. Children can learn only by moving.

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

Zlata, smiling coyly next to her mother, wants to learn, Protsenko said. He should start school this year. At the moment they read books together at home – now the electricity has been restored. “But she’s single.”

Ukrainian children were already hungry for live interaction due to pandemic restrictions. Now, with only online learning, as well as the disrupted routines and security restrictions of wartime, they are becoming increasingly stressed and withdrawn.

“It is not so much the quality of education as communication. They are losing socialization,” said Larisa, a teacher from Berdyansk.

Some parents compare the situation to that of their grandparents, who missed out on years of education during World War II. When the war ended, he had to study with much younger children, earning him the name ‘pererostki’ or ‘advanced’.

“I think it will be like my grandmother,” said Maria Varennikova, a journalist who lives in Kyiv with her 11-year-old son Nazar. “Something has to be figured out in Ukraine, given that children haven’t had an education in the years since COVID, and now the war.

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“They work hard and worry a lot. They are lost children” said teacher Viktoria Shcherbakova Sergey Bobok/AFP via Getty Images

Nazar’s school opened in person this September, running with generators, bottled water and a basement bomb shelter. But Nazar is largely replaying the last school year lost.

Scherbakova’s son, on top of the trauma of running away from his home, had to cram much of the previous school year into extra classes over the summer in order to progress to the next grade in Kyiv.

“They work hard and worry a lot,” Shcherbakova said. “They are lost children.”

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