How a school principal resists in occupied Kherson

Kherson secondary school of grades I-III No. 32 (Credit: Kherson City Council)

Russian troops have occupied Kherson, in the south of Ukraine, since the beginning of March and have imposed their own rules in schools. Around the same time, the Ukrainian authorities updated the law on collaborationism, imposing severe penalties for Ukrainian educators who promote Russia’s educational programmes.

When Kherson’s occupiers gathered school principals in May to get them on board with the Russian curriculum, many of them refused to cooperate. Geneva Solutions spoke to one of the principals about educating children under occupation and the pressure teachers are under. 

Teachers resist

In May, all heads of Kherson’s educational institutions received an invitation for a meeting with the occupying authorities. Oleksandra (name has been changed for security reasons), who has been school principal for three years, did not go as a matter of principle. Some directors did attend but only to voice their position to any form of cooperation, she told Geneva Solutions. 

“A little more than 20 representatives of schools came to this so-called meeting. In total, we have 61 city institutions,” said Oleksandra. 

In her school, no one wants to work under the Russian education system, she said. “All the teachers of Kherson from the very beginning of the military invasion protested fiercely, and today the situation has not changed,” she added. 

“Our institution worked, works, and will work exclusively according to Ukrainian legislation; this is a joint decision of the entire teaching staff. Teachers do not cooperate with the occupying authorities; no one follows orders, does not provide any requested information.”

Online schooling as a way of bypassing the occupation 

Despite this, Oleksandra’s school continues to do online schooling as Ukraine’s Ministry of Education and Science has mandated for the country’s occupied territories.  "We survived the pandemic, we have fully established remote learning, we hope to meet face-to-face with the students after the victory, but the educational process must continue, and children must gain knowledge at any cost," she said.

Kherson educational institutions wanting to follow Ukraine’s education programme have two options: remote learning or move to other education centres in Ukraine-controlled territory. For example, Kherson State University has been operating from Ivano-Frankivsk since June. 

Oleksandra’s school decided to keep giving online lessons. But this hasn’t been easy. Since the beginning of the occupation of Kherson, there have been constant problems with communications and the Internet. 

Despite this, online education carried on, Oleksandra said: “After the full occupation of the city, we set up online schooling, and we managed to successfully finish the academic year. Now we work remotely, hold online meetings, pedagogical councils, and creative groups.”

In June, Ukraine’s Ministry of Education and Science removed some Russian and Soviet authors from the school curriculum, including Alexander Pushkin, Anton Chekhov, Mykhailo Lermontov, Mykhailo Bulgakov, and Leo Tolstoy.

Kherson is mostly a Russian-speaking city, but according to Oleksandra, Kherson children know and respect the Ukrainian language: “They win All-Ukrainian language competitions, etc., education is conducted exclusively in Ukrainian, students also communicate in Ukrainian during breaks.”

Pressure mounting

The refusal of teachers to adhere to Russia’s school programme has not been taken lightly by the occupiers. Oleksandra says she and her colleagues are being carefully watched.  

“There are constant inspections of educational institutions, e-mails asking for information on the number of teachers and students in the school, the list of material assets, etc.,” she said. 

In some cases, intimidation tactics are taken to the extreme. “There was a case of a fellow school director being abducted. She was kept  in an unknown city to obtain consent for cooperation,” Oleksandra said. 

“In our school, there were checks by unknown people and remarks about the fact that there are no teachers at the workplace. When the situation reached its climax, we were told to resolve this issue by Monday [the week after], and if there were a refusal, the military would work with us.”