Schools during wartimes: Chernihiv prepares for new academic year
When sirens woke up the whole Ukraine on February 24, 2022, not only students came to many schools in Chernihiv. People of all ages came to hide there from Russian shelling in the shelters.
Then shelling and bombing of the city by planes began. And while the Director Natalia Malets was sweeping the glass in the corridors of her school after another strike, her colleague Larysa Lesun was looking for volunteers to evacuate a family with small children from the shelter. Other educators, headed by their leader - the Head of the Chernihiv City Council Education Department Vasyl Bilohura, were also busy with this.
Because of the war, Chernihiv suffered severe destruction in March. Out of 34 schools, Russian shells did not hit only seven. Two schools were destroyed and cannot be restored, 25 were damaged. The repair of the "survivors" is estimated at over UAH 200 million. Despite all the difficulties, Vasyl Bilohura assures: the educational process in the city will begin on time.
How did the teachers live in the besieged Chernihiv, how did they unite with the community and do-gooders to restore the property destroyed by russians, and most importantly - what will the educational process be like in the conditions of war in the city, which is just a few tens of kilometers from the border with belarus? Find out more from our report.
School Director Larysa Lesun and her Deputy for Housekeeping Tetiana Sereda.
Despite the disturbing morning of February 24, the Director of a Chernihiv school Larysa Lesun arrived at work. There were no official orders from the authorities yet. But the Director decided that she had to be there.
"We gathered with my deputies – Lidiia Bryka and Tetiana Sereda, a security guard and other technical staff. I wrote to the rest of the teachers that they might not come to work," Larysa Volodymyrivna begins the conversation.
In the afternoon, residents of the surrounding high-rise buildings began to run to school en masse: elderly men and women, people with disabilities, mothers with children, and so on. And three teachers had to quickly solve a lot of new tasks: meet and settle people, carry gym mats and tables to the shelter, arrange places for an overnight stay, register. The Director and her Deputies could not leave the school and people with just one security guard. So, they decided to spend the night there. And it lasted for 58 long days until the last "guest" left the shelter in late April.
People lived in this shelter during active hostilities near Chernihiv. Now the premises are ready to host students during air raids.
"We started repairs in the basement a year before the invasion," says Tetiana Sereda and leads to the shelter where Chernihiv residents lived a few months ago. "Of course, we did not know then that people would hide from the war here. So, at the beginning of the invasion, our basement was comfortable, with water, toilets, and freshly painted walls."
At first, the school staff took care of the safety and order in the institution on their own. Later, the military of territorial defense took over the duty at the door.
"Shells were exploding somewhere nearby. The walls were trembling from the sound of planes. But we pulled ourselves together, put on a smile, went into the shelter, and calmed people down," says Ms Lesun.
The school was damaged in early March when russians bombed enterprises and other facilities nearby. Then the blast wave knocked out 12 old windows and damaged 5 metal-plastic windows, debris cut the roof of the school.
Later, electricity and water disappeared in Chernihiv. For technical needs, it was collected from drains, and drinking water was brought by male teachers. A toilet was built in the yard. Thanks to the technical staff, even in such difficult times, it was possible to maintain basic cleanliness and hygiene.
Teachers coordinated people who wanted to evacuate with volunteers. They were looking for the necessary medicines, hygiene products, and food. And when russians hit a residential dormitory in the neighboring district, they sheltered the citizens who were left homeless.
Deputy Director for Housekeeping Tetiana Sereda shows the readiness of the shelter for the new academic year.
Every Chernihiv school has its stories. Teachers volunteered, arranged meals for civilians and the military, and delivered the necessary things. And based on schools, they have established hubs where everyone could find shelter, food, medicine, and the most necessary things for life.
"Scars" on the walls from russian shells. Metal-plastic profiles have resisted, and the glass is not broken through
The damage in Ms Lesun's school was not as extensive as in other educational institutions. But it is inspiring how fast they have made repairs.
"A few years ago, wooden windows were replaced with plastic ones in one of the schools in the city. Colleagues offered to pick them up for everyone in need. There were no such people. Only my Deputy Tetiana Sereda agreed. These old windows were in our basement, and they were already getting in the way. And after the explosions blew out old wooden frames in the school, these "stocks" were needed. So, we did not take a single penny from the budget to replace old windows," says the Director.
Blast wave damaged old wooden windows. School staff themselves set wooden frames that were in the "stock" in the basement.
Now the school is preparing to welcome children. This year, there will be 50 students less than last year. Out of 48 classes, 20 decided to study remotely, and some students will be in touch from abroad. For those who will go to school, there will be an extended day group, but with a reduced timetable.
The school is ready to welcome students on September 1.
"We have done everything to make children feel safe and comfortable at school. The only thing is that we cannot close the sky from the bloody missiles," Larysa Volodymyrivna summarizes.
This school was hit by four russian shells: two fell in the yard and two hit the roof.
The school of Natalia Malets is considered to be one of the most damaged in the city. On March 6, four russian artillery shells hit the yard and the roof. Debris smashed 126 windows, pierced the roof over the gym, and the slate over the main part of the building was also damaged. Part of the furniture, office equipment, and partly the heating system were destroyed. According to preliminary data, the repair of the school will cost more than UAH 11 million.
This is what it looked like the morning after the missile strikes.
"There was a clock on the wall of one of the elementary school classrooms. It stopped at 7:16 pm. At that moment, there was a hit. There was a security guard there, colleagues. They cut off the water and did everything possible to minimize the destruction. I spent that night at home, I could hardly wait until the morning to come, because there was a curfew," Natalia recalls.
The next day, the film was brought to the school, and teachers, together with their friends, covered the windows on the first floor with it.
Many teachers face difficult choices in their work. On the one hand, I had to stay with my own children and family. On the other hand, they had a responsibility to the community to protect the school. And often the choice fell on the side of duty. On March 5, Natalia's husband took their youngest daughter out of the city. The woman says that was the first time she allowed herself to cry because she did not know if she would see her daughter again.
When the Ukrainian Armed Forces pushed russians back from Chernihiv and humanitarian aid was gradually arriving in the city, schools became centers for its distribution.
School Director Natalia Malets near the damaged school.
"I will never forget the first time I saw our students. Almost 200 children came for humanitarian aid: emaciated, with bruises under their eyes...," Natalia emotionally recalls.
To comfort the children, a waltz for graduates was organized for the Farewell Bell celebration in the schoolyard. Kids had been preparing for this celebration before the invasion began. This event was useful for children, teachers, and parents.
"Children came here to rehearse, and we could see them recovering day by day. Students saw that teachers and their parents were clearing the rubble. We dismantled hundreds of double-glazed windows. We cleaned the glass everywhere and removed the radiators. We covered the windows on other floors with film. So, we put things in order together," says the Director.
Window frames and radiators are neatly stacked in the schoolyard. Teachers and parents cleared the rubble by themselves
To start full-time studies, this year schools must be properly equipped with the simplest shelters where children will stay during air raids. Now the basement of Ms Malets' school is undergoing repairs, and there is also a civil defense shelter nearby.
This year, the school will have several shifts. But let's talk about this later.
Hole in the ceiling above the gym. A so-called ceiling was temporarily built over the roof to prevent rain from leaking inside.
Natalia Malets shows a through hole in the wall.
So far, 126 windows are covered with film. To start a full-fledged educational process in the school, it is necessary to install double-glazed windows. The Director believes that this can be done in 2-3 weeks.
This elementary school classroom suffered the most
On September 1, full-time education in the school will not begin, because the repairs are not yet completed. However, Natalia Malets hopes that the institution will be fully operational in October or November. Until then, everyone will study online.
The Education Department is busy. Teachers and other visitors are waiting to see the Head. Suddenly, an air raid alarm goes on, and everyone obediently goes down to the shelter. Time stops.
The sound of sirens seems to bring back the days when the city was bombed from all sides, and the Head of the Chernihiv City Council Education Department Vasyl Bilohura coordinated the work of his colleagues and did a lot of unusual things.
Vasyl Bilohura, Head of the Chernihiv City Council Education Department.
"I did what was needed at that moment. Besides my direct duties, if necessary, I unloaded foodstuffs, and other goods, and delivered bread... Different situations happened," the Head of the Department briefly recalls after the alarm goes off. "Teachers were not used to working under such conditions. However, they have applied all their organizational skills to take care of the safety of citizens and help civilians and the military. I suppose they have accepted this challenge with dignity."
And the next one is to arrange studies and take care of the safety of students at school during the war. That is what they are working on right now. According to Vasyl Bilohura, this year, the educational process will be held in two forms: full-time – in schools where it is allowed and parents want it, and distance learning. This year, 42% of parents have applied for transferring their children to online schooling. The format of teaching other children will depend on the situation.
"We have transferred pupils of two destroyed schools to other educational institutions. Teachers were also employed. The other 25 schools suffered various damage: from one broken window to a large area of damage. The most common destruction is windows and roofs. We are making every effort to do as much as possible before the beginning of the school year. However, for objective reasons, pupils will not be able to physically go to all schools on September 1," explains the Head of the Education Department.
However, all children will have access to education, although for some it will be a remote format. According to the Head of the Education Department, the system has been arranged during the coronavirus pandemic.
"Many institutions are currently undergoing repairs. We feel the support of our colleagues and parents. Sponsors, non-governmental organizations, philanthropists, international partners, and governments provide financial assistance. We are very grateful for this. But there is one resource that is sorely lacking - time. We need to restore a lot of things and do some things from scratch. Every year we were preparing for the educational process, and there was so much work. But this year it should be multiplied by a million, or even more. But we will manage," Bilohura is confident.
Most teachers are ready to start working. Now there are more than 95% of teachers in Chernihiv. However, according to the Head of the Education Department, there is enough staff to ensure quality education.
Psychologists and schoolteachers have received special training in working during wartime. Each institution has instructions on how to act in a particular situation: routes for children, algorithms of actions, etc. Mine safety lessons have also been added to the curricula.
"Teachers courageously survived the time of active hostilities in the city. I am confident that in the current security setup we will be able to work through this academic year with dignity," sums up Vasyl Bilohura.
Writer: Natalia Naydyuk
Photo: Natalia Naydyuk