The children and teachers gathered on the grass outside School No 2 in Borodianka on Thursday morning for the first day of the academic year. There were speeches and a recital of the Ukrainian national anthem, and as is traditional the girls wore white scrunchies in their hair, the boys white shirts. They brought flowers to give to their teachers.
But there will be no lessons in the classrooms of School No 2 this year. Borodianka, a town just north of Kyiv, was occupied by Russian forces in March. The invading soldiers used the school as a base and then trashed it as they left.
The teachers described returning to the school after it was liberated and finding that the soldiers had used several classrooms as toilets, left rubbish everywhere and needlessly destroyed whiteboards, PE equipment, TVs and computers. They had graffitied anti-Ukraine and pro-Russia slogans on the walls and dug trenches behind the school.
“The ironic thing is that the only classroom burnt out was the Russian literature classroom,” said Andriy Bondar, the school’s PE teacher, during a tour of the building on Thursday.
Like many other towns and villages in Ukraine’s north, Borodianka’s residents endured a month of terror under occupation, including indiscriminate shelling, executions and torture. Just down the road from the school, a series of apartment blocks were flattened when Russian planes dropped heavy bombs in early March, killing most of the residents. Each person seemed to have their own horror story to tell.
The speeches on Thursday morning stuck to familiar themes of defiance against the odds and ridding Ukraine of the “enemy”. There was a minute’s silence for those who had died defending the country. After the ceremony, the teachers and students returned home to start their lessons on their smartphones and laptops. Only year 1 will be learning in person, joining another first-year class at the only school in the town left undamaged.
“I wanted to do something nice for everyone, give a little positivity to the children,” said Inna Romaniuk, the headteacher, who said the school was in the process of being renovated and they hoped to reopen next year.
Almost all of the school’s windows were covered with sheets of plastic, having been blown out by the impact of strikes that hit the school building and its surroundings.
By a miracle, the football pitch survived unscathed, said Bondar, the PE teacher. The school puts a special emphasis on football and three of its students have made Ukraine’s national youth team.
Parents of the 6 million Ukrainian students returning to school on Thursday were asked to choose between online and offline learning. Only schools in areas that do not face a regular threat of shelling will reopen.
Where enough students opted for in-person teaching and the schools are fit for use, school administrations have been preparing for the new academic year by outfitting basements as shelters and training teachers on what to do in case of an attack. All children who attend in person are told to carry an emergency bag with a change of clothes, any medicine they may need, a note from their parents and, for the younger children, a favourite toy.
Aside from the destruction, part of the challenge facing schools is psychological. Teachers at School No 2 said more than half of the parents had opted for remote learning because they were scared that schools may be attacked.
“Our child is still frightened. She jumps when she hears a car,” said Natasha Shuka, the mother of Tetiana, a teenager at the school, who was watching the ceremony from the sidelines. “I can pretty much speak for everyone that we still feel fear every time we hear something loud.”
“It’s all a process, we’ll try the first month and see how it goes,” said Svitlana Popova, the school’s maths teacher, whose house was destroyed by a rocket and who now lives in her shed. Popova taught her first lesson of the day from her garden, using her phone and a blackboard that she propped up against a donated cupboard.
Schools across the country have been the target of repeated attacks. Ukraine’s prosecutor general reported that 2,300 educational intuitions had been hit, with 286 destroyed. Some have been used as bases by Russian troops because of their ability to accommodate troops with their toilets, showers and canteens. Others have been destroyed at random, many of them in the first few days of the invasion.
In the areas of Ukraine that have come under heavy attack, students have been left with a poorer education system, according to a report by the Centre for Information Resilience, a London-based human rights organisation. The report found that in he Kharkiv region alone, Russian forces had targeted a boarding school for visually impaired students, a 218-year-old university library, a university training pool used by Olympic athletes, and an almost 100-year-old vocational college.
“The shelling did not just destroy classrooms, it blocked the safe access to specialised equipment for children with disabilities, endangered books that had previously survived World War II, sabotaged Olympic dreams and interrupted teaching at colleges which have been operational for generations,” the report said.
Millions of people have fled Ukraine, including 22,000 teachers, according to Sergii Gorbachov, Ukraine’s education ombudsman. About 440,000 are left, but the problem is not so much numbers as internal migration, he said. In some places there are too many teachers and in others not enough.
Additional reporting by Shaun Walker