Andreea Campeanu/Getty Images
It’s Tuesday morning and Hanna Kudrinova’s 5th grade English class is connected to Google Meet. Kudrinova starts like many teachers everywhere, with a check-in. She asks the students to turn on their camera and show a thumbs up if they’re happy, a thumbs down if they’re sad, and sideways if they’re feeling that way.
Today, Maksym Radzievsky, a boy with a round face and a striped shirt who always seems to have his hand up, says he’s doing this because he’s tired. He is in Munich, Germany, in a time zone that predates Ukraine, so he must have started classes at 7:30 a.m.
Other students yawn – one is wrapped in a blanket. Air raid sirens went off the previous night in the small town near Odessa where they all lived and studied with Kudrinova himself.
Now his students are scattered in all directions — some still at home, others elsewhere in Ukraine, others in Germany, Poland, the Czech Republic and even as far away as Canada.
Since February 24, more than half of the country’s children have been driven from their homes. At least two million are refugees outside the country, a number that is growing every day. It’s one of the biggest and fastest-moving disruptions in children’s lives since World War II.
Safety, housing, food and medical care are top priorities, but a surprising number of families are also attending school. When war broke out, the Ukrainian Ministry of Education decreed a two-week school vacation. But since then, teaching has resumed remotely.
The ministry says nearly three million, the majority of the nation’s school-aged children, have turned up for online learning, at least a little. The country even broadcasts video lessons on television.
It may come as a surprise, but the world is getting familiar with remote learning again thanks to the pandemic. And Ukraine’s focus on maintaining education is in line with an emerging philosophy of disaster response – a philosophy summed up in the name of a United Nations trust fund: Education Cannot Wait. The fund just announced $5 million in donations to help war-affected children with learning and mental health services.
“Often when you have a humanitarian crisis, you don’t prioritize education and focus on water and shelter – which is important,” says Yasmine Sherif, the fund’s director. “However, what we have seen in many countries in crisis is that they are prolonged – they can last 10, 20, 30 years.”
When there is no school and no other organized activities, Sherif explains, children’s mental health deteriorates within days. Over months or years, children may be drawn into conflict as soldiers, or risk trafficking and other abuse. And without school, “You will have neither dreams nor hopes for these millions and millions of children and adolescents, but also no capacity to build a country if peace comes.”
Classes interrupted by anti-aircraft sirens
It’s not easy to teach in the middle of a war. Hanna Kudrinova is 23 years old and teaches first grade. She is a member of the Ukraine chapter of Teach for All, an organization co-founded by the founder of Teach for America that operates in 61 countries.
When war broke out, Kudrinova fled to the west of the country. Meanwhile, her family was stuck in Mariupol, one of Ukraine’s most devastated cities. “It was awful for me. I was worried about my family and trying to teach at the same time.” Her family has since been evacuated and her 14-year-old sister now lives with her.
Teach for Ukraine gave him and the other fellows a quick training on how to deal with students’ psychological issues. She learned how to do the daily mood check and learned some breathing exercises to try and calm the class down when they have to stop lessons for anti-aircraft sirens.
Omar Marques/Getty Images
Some students cannot come every day because they are not in a safe place or because they are on the move. Many more log on to their parents’ phones. Still, Kudrinova says, and experts agree, that school routine and seeing their friends online helps. Otherwise, she said, they’re mostly stuck indoors all day, watching TikTok or playing Fortnite.
“Even if I don’t teach the full program, it’s good that they talk to me, they talk to each other…[it] can remind us of something normal.”
Children experience the war on social media, through memes and videos, as well as directly. They don’t ask Kudrinova many questions, but it comes in other ways. A boy, when asked to explain the difference between “There is” and “There is”, found the phrase “There are many dead Russian soldiers in Odessa”.
Stay with your classmates or go to a new school?
In countries like Poland and Bulgaria, and in safer parts of Ukraine, there are informal settings that resemble the learning centers set up in the United States during the pandemic. Here, students can register for their courses remotely with their teachers and classmates from home, and also play sports and do other activities in person. Some of these centers also offer support to mothers.
Other children are starting over in new countries.
In Poland, which has welcomed more than a million children from Ukraine, and more are arriving every day, you have several options. Some newcomers enroll directly in Polish schools, especially in smaller towns.
Poland is also creating classes with all Ukrainian children and Ukrainian teachers who have also just arrived. These will follow the Ukrainian curriculum and will be taught in Ukrainian.
Kasia Nabdralik, CEO of Teach for Poland, another chapter of Teach for All, helps with staffing: matching newly arrived Ukrainians who have education experience with different openings.
“The first week, we’re all going to help with the medical stuff, find shelter,” she explained. “We thought, ‘OK, we know that in a week or two people will start thinking about education.’ And we realized that could be our goal, to make schools safe spaces for these kids, because safety and that kind of stability is most important to them.”
Further, efforts to absorb Ukrainian children have been more ad hoc.
Three thousand kilometers from Odessa, in Dublin, Ireland, there are some new Ukrainian students in the school of Professor Phil McCarthy. He is trained in teaching English as a second language and spokesperson for the English Language Support Teachers’ Association of Ireland.
He was called the other day to help a newly arrived student.
“He was just sitting there, lost.” He installed the child’s teacher with translation software. Her group also recently held a webinar for Irish teachers who want to help Ukrainian students. More than 1,000 people registered. “It’s a lot for Ireland,” McCarthy said.
More than a dozen different languages are spoken in McCarthy’s class. Her school is close to a short-term reception center for asylum seekers at Dublin Airport. He said the other day, perhaps prompted by current events, one of his Syrian students had a realization.
“He actually said to me in class… ‘Oh! I am a refugee ! ”
Bulent Kilic/AFP via Getty Images
The problem of interrupted education is much bigger than this war alone. Sherif of Education Cannot Wait says that while around 4.5 million Ukrainian children are displaced, there are 128 million children and young people worldwide whose learning is disrupted by war, disasters exacerbated by the climate and the pandemic.
She mentions Afghanistan, where the Taliban recently banned girls from going to school beyond grade 6. Meanwhile, she says, only 2-4% of all humanitarian aid goes to education.
She hopes that this war and the influx of support from around the world could change that equation.
If necessary, Ukrainian online courses will continue until the end of the school year. A looming issue is the spring high school and college entrance exams.
For now, Hanna Kudrinova and her students continue. She says she no longer bothers to put her own teaching on hold when air raid sirens sound near her temporary home near Lviv.