KYIV, Ukraine — When the blare of the siren rang out over the loud speaker, the students in a school in central Kyiv quickly rose from their desks, packed their things and filed calmly down the stairs behind their teachers. But this wasn’t a drill.
Amid the darkness, huddled in the narrow hallway of their basement shelter, students chatted among themselves. Some used the lights on their smartphones to continue working on classroom assignments.
They would remain in the shelter for nearly two hours until the threat of a potential airstrike passed. It is the new reality for the 430 schoolchildren, ages 6 to 18, who still attend classes in person at this large public elementary and high school in Ukraine’s capital. Although classes resumed in September, a relentless barrage of Russian strikes targeting the city since October has crippled the country’s power grid, caused rolling blackouts in Kyiv and offered the latest challenge to education during wartime.
“We hope this will not last for a long time,” said Olena Romanova, 50, who has been the principal of the school for the last decade. “We also have a generator, but since the school is large, it cannot meet the needs of the entire institution.”
Initially, the school struggled to adapt, and some students’ grades faltered, she said, but the school is doing its best to adapt to the new obstacles. Schools across the Ukrainian capital have shuttered for January amid ongoing power cuts, and Ms. Romanova said teachers have been offering extra lessons online to try to keep students up to speed.
But a visit to one school in the city in late December, before the winter break, offered a window into the hardships these children need to overcome, and their determination to continue on, with parents and teachers doing what they can to provide the kids with some sense of normalcy.
Students walking through the dark corridor of a public school during a blackout.
There are normally 850 children enrolled in this school. But in December some classes were only half full, as many students are opting to study online, and some parents believe it’s safer for their children to study from home. Some students are living abroad, after fleeing alongside millions of other Ukrainians, but continue to dial into classes.
On the flip side, some new students have joined the classrooms, displaced from battered communities closer to the front lines in Ukraine’s east. The school requested that its exact name be withheld for security and privacy reasons.
The State of the War
- Dnipro: A Russian strike on an apartment complex in the central Ukrainian city was one of the deadliest for civilians away from the front line since the war began. The attack prompted renewed calls for Moscow to be charged with war crimes.
- Western Military Aid: Britain indicated that it would give battle tanks to Ukrainian forces to help prepare them for anticipated Russian assaults this spring, adding to the growing list of powerful Western weapons being sent Ukraine’s way that were once seen as too provocative.
- Soledar: The Russian military and the Wagner Group, a private mercenary group, contradicted each other publicly about who should get credit for capturing the eastern town. Ukraine’s military, meanwhile, has rejected Russia’s claim of victory, saying its troops are still fighting there.
But few aspects of the education process are untouched by the war. With Russian strikes a constant threat, high school students receive first aid training at school. During last month’s visit, a group of high school girls practiced applying tourniquets and bandages on one another.
For now, though, the blackouts remain the most pressing concern.
The school’s generator is limited to how much power it can provide, Ms. Romanova said.
“It’s enough for online classes, it’s enough to keep the lights and internet on,” she said. But it’s not enough to run the school cafeteria, since it uses electric stoves and the generator isn’t powerful enough for them.
As the power went out, the hungry students at the school were disappointed when the chef, Olena Sulyma, 42, told them that the food hadn’t arrived yet.
She has been working in this cafeteria for years. But lately, she has had to get more creative in how she provides hot meals for the hundreds of a students here amid the power outages. She and chefs at other schools nearby that have similar energy issues have been partnering with another local school where there is still electricity.
They can cook the meals there and then bring them to their own school.
“Ukrainians are inventive with things that bother us, that’s why our school chefs try to adapt,” Ms. Romanova said. “So, we adapted and it’s not an issue at the moment, the kids are always full.”
Despite the hardships, many of the students prefer to be in school. One girl, Taisia, 17, said she prefers to be alongside her classmates, even if it meant regular trips to the basement shelter.
“I can’t stay at home alone,” she said. “But when there is an air alarm and I’m in school, at first I feel calm, but then when I see in the news that something is approaching I feel uneasy and we go to shelter.”
Their parents become unsettled as well. While this particular school has not been targeted, a number of educational institutions across Ukraine have been. When the sirens go off, warning of the potential for an incoming strike, many parents rush to pick their children up from school.
More than 2,600 educational institutions had been damaged by bombing and shelling, by the last week of December, according to data from the Ukrainian Ministry of Education, and another 406 were completely destroyed.
Maria Lavrynenko is still opting to study online from her home because of her family’s safety concerns.
Maria, 17, fled the city with her parents early in the war, relocating to a village further west. From there she continued her education online, and chose that option when they returned to their home this fall.
Each day Maria, who is in the 11th grade, logs on from her family’s apartment in Kyiv at 9 a.m. and continues with her lessons until 3:30 p.m. Then she attends lessons at a rhythmic gymnastics school and hopes to study physical education at university. But rolling power outages have forced her to find creative ways to complete her assignments when the lights flicker off.
“For me it is very difficult to study, because sometimes there is no electricity and I need to boost my knowledge,” she said, adding that she is preparing for her final exams later this year.
Sometimes she heads to a nearby store that has a generator and Wi-Fi and electricity available. On a recent afternoon, as the power at home cut out, she took a photograph of an essay she had just completed and sent it to her teacher using the mobile internet on her phone.
Sometimes she drops off her assignments in person. Still, she and her family think it’s best for her to study from home.
“There are also other reasons for distance learning,” her mother, Maia Lavrenenko, 52, explained. “When there is an air alert in school — everyone goes to the shelter and when you are at home you can continue to study even during the air alert.”
Staying at home is no guarantee of tranquillity, though. In early December, there was a drone strike near their home.
“The whole sky was red, there was dark smoke, everything was black after,” the older Ms. Lavrynenko said. “The house across the road swayed.”
Despite all of this, normal life at school carries on. The teachers held a pajama party for the younger students on the last day of school before the start of the winter break. They clutched stuffed animals and giggled in their onesies. The older students also held a holiday party and shared snacks and tea.
Ms. Romanova, the principal, said it is important for her to maintain this positivity for in-person schooling. She said sees it as the personal battle front of every student and every teacher in Ukraine.
“All of us make our victory closer with our educational achievements,” she said. “We’re here in this moment, and we will be able to overcome it, we will be able to overcome the troubles that fall on our children.”
Laura Boushnak and Nikita Simonchuk contributed reporting.