Exams in Ukraine are cancelled for the year, but some school-reopenings, distance-learning programmes, and educational integration in refugee-hosting countries are keeping education going for thousands of children uprooted by the war.
Children in some parts of Ukraine returned to school on Monday after an official two-week “extraordinary holiday”, despite the intensifying fighting with Russian forces and many schools coming under attack.
Some are resuming with distance-learning. For others living in areas under heavy bombardment and experiencing internet outages, or forced to flee their homes, however, learning remains on hold.
Those who make it out of the country are receiving support from the UNHCR and host governments to integrate into local school systems, Karina Kleivan, a coordinator for the Global Education Cluster, who is leading the Cluster’s work in Ukraine, tells Geneva Solutions. Often this requires learning a new language. For students close to graduation for whom it is not practical to integrate, the UNHCR helps connect them with online learning programmes.
Schools in thirteen of Ukraine’s twenty-four oblasts have begun to re-open at the discretion of local authorities, Kleivan says. Monday’s gradual reopening is a testament to the resilience of the country’s education system, she adds. “We all expected [the closures] to last much longer, because education has been very violently under attack in Ukraine.”
The scale of disruption to education is not fully known, Kleivan says. More than 75,000 children are fleeing the country every day since the escalation began on 24 February, according to UNICEF. That is over 1.5 million of Ukraine’s 5.7 million school-age children, aged three to seventeen – or 55 children per minute.
Many of the country’s schools have been serving as shelters for displaced Ukrainians. Aid workers also use schools for distribution points and military personnel for their operations.
They are one of the few types of public buildings with heating, Kleivan explains. Winter is compounding the catastrophe, with temperatures reaching minus eight degrees Celsius in parts of the country’s east last night.
Over 20 attacks against education, including schools, students or teachers, occurred between 17 February and 3 March alone, according to data presented by the Education Clusters latest report of 4 March.
The ministry of education is keeping track of damage to school buildings through a dedicated website and encourages local educational authorities to report any activity, though the data has yet to be verified, Kleivan notes.
According to the website’s latest count, the fighting has hit 464 education institutions, destroying 64 of them since 24 February. In one the latest attacks reported on Wednesday, officials said at least 21 people were killed and 25 injured when Russia shelled a school and a cultural centre in Merefa, near Kharkiv.
The situation remains most precarious for schools in eastern Ukraine, where the fighting is most intense. The region’s schools closed on 21 February, four days ahead of the rest of the country.
Kleivan says that education for the region’s approximately 350,000 school-aged children is thought to remain limited due to heavy infrastructural damage affecting internet access and the intensity of the fighting.
Attacks are not new for schools in eastern Ukraine, however. Hostilities between Ukrainian government forces and Russia-backed militants have damaged or forced the closure of hundreds of schools in the region since 2014.
Both sides have used schools for military purposes, deploying forces in and near schools, which has turned schools into legitimate military targets, Human Rights Watch said in a 2016 report, with children long bearing the brunt of the war.
The Ukrainian government is working closely with international partners through the Global Education Cluster to keep education going as the war drags on. Headquartered in Geneva, the Cluster is the education arm of the UN’s emergency humanitarian response, led by UNICEF and Save the Children.
Its mission is to avoid educational gaps, prevent fragmentation, and ensure education is delivered safely during crises. On Monday, it issued a flash appeal for $25.1m for educational assistance to Ukraine.
Ukraine’s strong education response to Covid-19 has given the country a solid distance-learning infrastructure, Kleivan says. Unusual for humanitarian crises, this means that distance-learning tools developed during the pandemic have limited the need for physical learning spaces in refugee and internal displacement camps. The country has several private service providers for distance-learning and the Ukrainian school system is continuing online.
The state school system’s online offering is the All-Ukrainian Online School, launched in December 2020. The platform is an initiative of Ukraine’s Ministry of Digital Transformation and Ministry of Education and Science, developed by the Osvitoria Public Union under the Swiss-Ukrainian DECIDE project (Decentralization for Improved Democratic Education).
Ukrainian TV channels are working with the government to develop educational TV programmes for five to eleven year-olds, called Learning without Borders. The programmes will focus on a separate subject each day.
Another education project deployed in Ukraine is UNICEF and Microsoft’s Learning Passport. The passport brings together a range of educational courses and is accessible online, through mobile phones, and offline too, making it possible for children to continue learning where there is damage to IT infrastructure.
There is interactive content for different ages, including parents and educators. The scheme is live in so-called “blue dot centres” – safe havens for migrating children and families – across Europe.
“We are working, through UNICEF’s larger emergency response in the region and appropriate coordination mechanisms, to determine how the Learning Passport could complement the current response in the region and potentially fill gaps,” UNICEF spokesperson Joe Englisch tells Geneva Solutions.
Education as protection
Ensuring access to education during crises is not only crucial for learning – it is also a way to mitigate trauma and make children feel safe.
Both Ukraine’s Learning Passport and the wider Education Cluster prioritise psychosocial and mental health support. Exposure to war increases anxiety, and the classroom – real or virtual – can provide a safe space for children to express their fears.
Life-saving messages are also core to the Cluster’s efforts. The Cluster has been active in Ukraine since 2014, when conflict began in Donbass: a region densely littered with unexploded mines. Crisis-adjusted curricula teach children not to touch devices that could be military.
Education also protects children from exploitation. Children outside of education are at greater risk of abuse, human trafficking, and integration into armed groups, Kleivan explains.
“Education in a humanitarian crisis is very much a protective intervention.”