- By Vitaly Shevchenko
- BBC Monitoring
It was a quiet summer morning in Romny, a provincial town in northern Ukraine.
As Tetyana Prokopenko, a local headteacher, left for work last Wednesday, she told her husband she had to hold some meetings to prepare for the new term.
Shortly after 10:00 local time she would be dead, together with her deputy, secretary and a librarian.
“She was passionate about that school, it was her life. She was there 24/7,” Mrs Prokopenko’s husband, Valery, says, tearfully.
Russian air strikes will be a constant threat to Ukrainian teachers, children and parents as the new school term begins on 1 September.
“I swear there were no military there,” Valery says of the school in Romny where his wife was killed.
To minimise the deadly threat, many pupils will be studying remotely, and it is up to the local authorities to decide whether schooling will be conducted in the classroom or from home.
Their decision depends on the security situation in each region, and on whether schools there have bomb shelters.
Ukraine’s second-largest city, Kharkiv, is close to the Russian border and targeted frequently. Therefore, schooling there will almost exclusively be done remotely.
To enable at least some form of safe in-person education, the authorities there have built 60 classrooms at underground metro stations, enough to accommodate more than 1,000 pupils.
Deputy Education Minister Andriy Stashkiv has told the BBC that about a sixth of Ukrainian schools are now expected to work remotely – but that is far fewer than the one in three last year.
Some 80,000 of their pupils will be logging in from Russian-occupied territories in Ukraine.
“It’s a huge challenge for us and it’s dangerous for them because the occupiers threaten them and their parents if they find out that they continue studying in Ukrainian schools. It’s a very sensitive security issue and schools do not say who these pupils are because this can put their lives and health at risk,” Mr Stashkiv says.
The school curriculum is also being adapted to wartime conditions, and studying mine safety will now be compulsory.
To make the course more accessible for younger children, it features Patron, the famous mine-sniffing dog, who also stars in a cartoon series educating young Ukrainians about the dangers posed by unexploded munitions.
Images of the friendly Jack Russell terrier help create the “atmosphere of psychological and mental safety” Ukrainian children need, Lesya Yurchyshyn, a teacher from Kyiv, told the BBC’s Ukrainecast podcast.
Another feature of the curriculum that has been changed by the war with Russia is the removal of numerous Russian writers last year by Ukraine’s education ministry.
Disruption caused by the war has had a devastating effect on the quality of education in Ukraine.
“Inside Ukraine, attacks on schools have continued unabated, leaving children deeply distressed and without safe spaces to learn. Not only has this left Ukraine’s children struggling to progress in their education, but they are also struggling to retain what they learnt when their schools were fully functioning,” says Regina De Dominicis, Unicef Regional Director for Europe and Central Asia.
And it has been a while since schools were fully functioning in front-line cities like Zaporizhzhia, where remote education has been in place – with brief interruptions – since Covid restrictions were introduced in spring 2020.
“This isn’t normal schooling,” says Kostyantyn Samiylo, the head of the Perspektyva school in Zaporizhzhia. “Poor, poor children, they haven’t seen proper schooling for three years!”
According to him, distance learning makes it much more difficult to motivate children or to test their knowledge.
Mr Samiylo describes how he has been missing the peaceful sight of children going to school – something you can only see further away from the front line.
“I got tearful when I visited western Ukraine last year and saw children going to school with their little bags. It’s awful to think that our children don’t have this opportunity,” Mr Samiylo says.
But whatever impact distance learning may have on education in Ukraine, teachers, officials and parents all agree that safety comes first.