A Ukrainian father says his 14-year-old son spent half of his schooldays last week in a bomb shelter due to Russian air strikes hitting Kyiv – but said his education must go on “even with sirens”.
Photographer Mykola Omelchenko, who lives in Ukraine’s capital, told i it was hard to “take a kid to school each day, you never know how many hours he will spend in shelter”.
As Kyiv was one of the multiple areas across Ukraine which came under attack by the Russians last week as part of Vladimir Putin’s ongoing “special military operation”, pupils spent hours a day in bomb shelters.
The teachers, who Mr Omelchenko described as “heroes”, try to keep the classes going underground, reverting to “old school” methods.
“They teach them verbally. Without any school equipment. Some will have a table to sit and write but not all.
“So some just listen and remember,” said the photographer, who co-founded War up Close, an interactive website with street views of Ukraine’s destroyed regions.
The shelter beneath his son’s school has some desks and chairs, but several rooms only have benches so pupils are forced to write on their lap, Mr Omelchenko said. Children have to share notepads, books and pens.
“It is Ukraine, we do not leave anyone without help,” Mr Omelchenko said, explaining that those pupils without notebooks contact their peers when they arrive home to get their notes.
Students can learn online from home, but Mr Omelchenko said it doesn’t work for them as lessons are interrupted by the loss of power and internet, and because the family has grown tired of remote learning after Covid-19. His son Danya, is “scared” to leave for school but would rather go.
“Kids love company and hate to be alone at home during sirens,” the photographer said.
“Together they are better off.”
‘You never know where you’ll end up’
Iryna Dreval, 46, and from Kyiv, moved to the UK just before Easter with her two sons Taras and Ivan, aged nine and 13 respectively. The translator recently returned to Kyiv for a short period, during which she sent her youngest son to school.
She joked about how Taras “liked” the school as there were air raid sirens which forced them to the bomb shelters where they had good wi-fi and games.
But for parents, she said, “it’s frustrating” as their children’s education was being “severely impacted” as a result of the war.
Ms Dreval described how one morning, there was shelling just 200 metres from their apartment, which destroyed a car belonging to her eldest son, Volodymyr, 28.
“I believed that Kyiv is well protected, but when a missile is intercepted, some of its parts fall on your head.”
Recollecting the moment they heard the shelling, she said: “It was scary, we jumped out of the bed. Luckily it was early morning before school. So the school was cancelled and children studied online that day.”
Ms Dreval has found online learning hard to manage as “children have to do everything on their own and without their parents’ control they do nothing”.
Ms Dreval has now returned to the UK, where it’s safer, but her son is keeping up his studies of the Ukrainian curriculum at night while going to a school near Hereford during the day.
She said that when English schools are on holiday, her child attends online Ukrainian classes.
“It’s hard, there is no vacation for them,” she said.
Asked why her son was doing a double programme, she said: “I want to cover all bases. You never know where you are going to be at the end.
“I want them to speak English fluently and get the best education ever.”
‘I don’t know if I am doing the right thing’
Oksana Dankevych told i that when the invasion was launched, she fled with her family to Italy, where they spent four months.
They then weighed the risks and decided to return to their home in Lviv, where her seven-year-old daughter Roksolana has been attending school.
Ms Dankevych said children go to school “almost as usual” even though her daughter feels scared “every time” a siren blares.
“I am always saying that it is fine to be scared, you just need to keep calm and understand what you are doing.”
Ms Dankevych said her child takes her backpack to school along with a bag with cookies and water in case they are stuck in a bomb shelter for a long time.
The shelter isn’t a specially equipped bunker, but a basement that has been adapted to make it child-friendly as pupils run to it as soon as they hear an air siren, the mother said.
“For instance, yesterday we had alarms four times, so kids spent two to three hours in that basement. They were singing, playing quiz and, of course, watching YouTube.”
Ms Dankevych said she feels it is safer to send her daughter to school where safety rules are strictly followed and which has a better shelter than their nine-storey building.
“Of course, I’m not 100 per cent sure that I’m doing everything right”, she added.