Ukrainian children return to classrooms as war rages on
By Svitlana Dukhovych
For the second consecutive war amid the ongoing war, the school year officially began in Ukraine on Friday, 1 September.
There is not a single child in the country who has not been affected by this tragedy in one way or another. Countless children and young people will no longer be able to attend school because their lives have been shattered by the conflict.
More than 500 children killed
By the end of August 2023, according to the General Prosecutor's Office, 503 children have died and more than 1117 have been injured, as a result of the war.
Nearly half a million Ukrainian children had to flee with their parents, mostly with their mothers, to foreign countries where they were integrated into the local education system.
Those who remained at home, now, have to deal with the fact that Russian missiles continue to fall on their country's soil, sparing neither kindergartens, schools nor universities.
Damage and destruction of academic structures
Since the beginning of Russia's invasion, 3,389 school and university buildings have been damaged in Ukraine, 361 of which have been completely destroyed.
Despite everything, the new school year begins today in many Ukrainian schools and universities.
"After a long period of online teaching due first to the pandemic and then to the outbreak of war, children want to go to school, to meet their peers, to build social ties through live communication,'' the head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church's education department, Salesian Father Petro Mayba, told Vatican News in an interview.
"But there is the question of security, and this is the number one priority, so where this is possible, we will try to return to normal, as far as we can; while where there are risks, the children will continue to study online."
The prerequisite for a school that wants to offer face-to-face classes is an adequate air-raid shelter.
Shelters essential for security
According to the Ukrainian Ministry of Education, of the 13,000 schools currently operating in the country, 7,500 will start the school year with face-to-face teaching, and about 3,800, will have a mixed format since the size of the shelters is too small compared to the number of pupils enrolled.
In addition, for safety reasons, about 2,500 schools, mostly located in the most at-risk areas, will operate only in online mode.
Another problem facing the Kyiv a school system is the lack of teachers. "Many fled abroad at the beginning of the war and not all of them are able or want to return," says Fr. Mayba, "so the schools lack the necessary staff to start the normal integration of students. But one of the difficulties experienced by the teachers is the low salary."
He said it "was not high before the war," but now with the conflict "it has worsened, since the country has to bear so much military expenditure.".
Psychologically challenging for teachers
Being a teacher while a war is raging is also not easy from a psychological point of view.
"Teachers must first of all deal with their own stress, but then they must also support the children," explains the Salesian priest. Without forgetting that in Ukraine there is no completely safe zone: the Russians launch missiles everywhere and no one knows where they fall.
"For example, recently in Lviv a missile fell in the courtyard of a kindergarten that was completely destroyed. Fortunately, there was no one inside. And so, whenever the air-raid alarm goes off, the first to move into a school facility are educators and teachers who have to protect the children and accompany them to the shelters."
Pain of children losing parents
Today, therefore, children and young people are happy to meet their peers because growing life is always stronger than any adversity. But this year many of them return to their school desks with a weight in their hearts that is too heavy to bear alone.
Fr. Petro Mayba speaks of a great pain that he perceives when talking to the children and young people.
"One of the most difficult things," he explains, "is when children lose their parents, especially fathers, who die at the front. Not forgetting the women: as of June 2023, there were 60,000 enlisted in the Ukrainian armed forces, 5,000 of them on the front line. 'So many parents die in the war," the Salesian priest emphasised.
"It is a tragedy in the family, a difficulty and a pain that many times it is difficult to help overcome, just as it is difficult to accompany a boy or a girl in this situation. Then many young people live in constant worry because one of their parents is fighting at the front."
Comforting with closeness
Another situation of great discomfort, the priest continues, occurs when "parents return from the front wounded, or with psychological problems, and then some start drinking, behaving badly.
From a certain point of view, we try to understand these people, but on the other hand, the child is deprived of the normality of daily life and so a lot of trust and patience is needed for their recovery."
Sometimes, Fr. Mayba concluded, "it is difficult both to listen to the pain of those who have lost a husband or parent, and to find the right words to support and help them'. The only thing that can be done, which is also 'the most important', is to 'stay close to them, make them talk and try to help them recover."