War disrupts education of Ukrainian kids, even those who’ve found safety abroad

Students see their old buildings under attack as teachers take shelter. They’re physically safe but experience trauma. An advocate calls the situation “a disaster in slow motion”

Students take the Ukrainian final state examination, a test after high school for those who hope to attend university, in Warsaw, Poland, Wednesday June 7, 2023.
Students take the Ukrainian final state examination, a test after high school for those who hope to attend university, in Warsaw, Poland, Wednesday June 7, 2023.Czarek Sokolowski (AP)

Nine-year-old Milana Minenko doesn’t play piano anymore. During the day, she attends public school in Poland, where she and her mother fled from the war in March 2022. In the evenings, her mother helps her follow Ukraine’s curriculum to keep up with lessons back home. There’s simply no time — and no money — for anything else.

Russian forces occupied Milana’s hometown in the Zaporizhzhia region of Ukraine, destroyed her house with a missile on the second day of the war, and uprooted her family. Milana and her family lost nearly everything they loved.

For Milana, that means school. The place that greeted her with balloons on her first day. Friends she can now only send text messages. The teacher who brought joy to learning.

It also means her music school, where she studied piano and singing after her other lessons. That building now lies in ruins. Milana’s not sure what became of her primary school. She wonders whether it, too, was bombed by Russian forces targeting schools.

Russian forces have destroyed 262 educational institutions and damaged another 3,019 in their invasion of Ukraine, according to government figures. But the disruption to the education of Ukrainian children goes far beyond buildings turned to rubble. For those who’ve fled to other countries, schooling is suffering in unprecedented ways, according to families, educators, experts and advocates. The effects of war and relocation combined with the challenges of studying in a new country are compounding educational setbacks for young refugees.

At stake are the knowledge and skills of a generation needed to rebuild the nation after the war, Ukrainian officials say — a priority they’ve described since the war’s early months. Officials report at least 500 children killed in the war, and thousands have been deported to Russia without consent. There’s no telling how many of the 8 million refugees recorded across Europe will return.

About 1.5 million live in Poland, the most of any country. Many chose it for proximity to Ukraine and plan to go home someday. In Poland, children aren’t required to enroll in local schools — an option not allowed in Germany and some other countries.

Fewer than half of the child refugees in Poland — 180,000 students — are enrolled in schools, according to UNICEF. Like Milana, most spoke no Polish when they arrived. Around 30% of children from Ukraine who are enrolled and studying in person in the Polish school system are also studying the Ukrainian curriculum online, UNICEF estimates.

Enrollment numbers drop with older students; just 22% of Ukrainian teens in Poland attend the country’s schools.

“It’s a disaster in slow motion,” said Jedrzej Witkowski, CEO of the Polish nonprofit Center for Citizenship Education.

The detrimental effects on learning and socializing will be far-reaching, said Francesco Calcagno, of Poland’s UNICEF refugee response office. That includes extracurricular activities like Milana’s music that are key to development and mental health, according to experts.

“Come September, it will be the third school year outside of Ukraine and it will be the fourth year online for many,” Calcagno said, citing educational setbacks of the coronavirus pandemic. “Learning face to face is missing. ... We need to bring these children back into school, back into classrooms.”

But Polish schools were already struggling with severe teachers shortages. And language issues exacerbate problems for the refugee students; although Ukrainian and Polish are similar, it takes three years to master the latter at a level needed for scholastic work, Witkowski said.

Following curricula in two languages creates more stress for students dealing with the trauma of war and relocation. Many refugee families have moved several times since arriving in Poland, contributing to a feeling of instability.

“I have seen students who changed schools five times,” said Rita Rabinek, an intercultural assistant trained by the Polish Migration Forum and the global relief group IRC to help Ukrainian kids adjust to Polish schools.

Students who try to keep up with Ukrainian work see the effects of war still playing out at home. Polina Plokhenko, a 16-year-old who left her Polish high school to focus on Ukrainian studies, is completing online lessons with her school on the frontline in Kherson. Bombs often send her teachers fleeing into shelters.

“It is hard because it is my last year of school, and I needed to learn a lot of information by myself,” said Polina, who’s wanted since age 11 to study acting at a Kyiv university. “A lot of students who don’t have motivation like that or don’t know who they want to be, they have bigger problems.”

Polina is this month taking Ukraine’s final state examination, which students must pass to enter universities there. It’s being given in 47 cities in 30 countries, according to Maryna Demyanchuk, a professor helping to administer it at one of Warsaw’s centers.

To prepare, Polina attends Saturday classes at one of three Ukrainian schools set up in Poland by the group Unbreakable Ukraine.

Founder Viktoriia Gnap said the schools’ teachers — also refugees — consider the overall level of the students’ knowledge quite low. The foundation’s aim is to provide them with a high-quality education, even as its funding has been cut amid global economic struggles.

“There are kids ending high school now who don’t know the chemical formula for water,” said Gnap, whose schools have about 1,500 students.

Olha Andrieieva, 17, attended a Polish school and followed classes online for her former school in Balakliia, in Ukraine’s Kharkiv region. Shelling and power outages often interrupted lessons.

She took Ukraine’s final exam this month. The rite of passage felt surreal - there was no graduation ceremony, and everything seemed unclear. She was calm about the test but shaken by the news of the dam collapse in southern Ukraine, the war’s latest humanitarian and environmental disaster.

“The thing to worry about is what is happening in Ukraine, not exams,” Olha said, her voice trembling.

Some Ukrainian students are becoming more proficient in Polish, making plans to attend universities here, and forming relationships. Others still feel disconnected from Poland. Gnap and others said teachers see growing tensions between Poles and newcomers in schools. Some refugees have been bullied.

Milana can now translate for her parents. She boasts of a good grade on a recent Polish assignment. But it’s hard: “I have to do homework and tests in both schools,” she said of keeping up with both countries’ curricula.

Piano or voice lessons are at the bottom of the family’s list of needs. Her father, Oleksandr, was stuck for a year in Russian-occupied territory before joining his wife and daughter recently in Poland. There’s no room for him in the temporary housing where Milana and her mother live. He awaits paperwork that would allow him to get a job and earn enough for the family to live together.

Her mother, Oksana, works as a manicurist. She wishes their small home could fit a keyboard. Videos of Milana performing are a distant memory of a life before the war — and of a place they hope to someday return.

“I really want to go home, to return to familiar walls, so that my child can go to her teacher and hug her,” Oksana said. “That’s what she dreams of.”

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