BUCHA, Ukraine – The bodies that littered the schoolyard in April have disappeared. The blood on the walls was cleaned up and the workers were working to repair the shattered windows.
However, school No. 3 in the Kyiv suburb of Bucha, site of some of the worst Russian atrocities of the war, will not open on Thursday when classes begin for millions of Ukrainian children whose families are struggling to educate them.
This is because the school’s basement was used by Russian soldiers as a torture chamber, residents said. It is still considered a crime scene and in Ukraine – where the Ministry of Education estimates that Russian bombs, rockets and bullets have hit more than 2,400 schools, leveling at least 270 – no school can open without a bomb shelter.
For students like Vera, 6, who loves math and castles, this means distance learning. She was looking forward to the first day of school in Ukraine, when, as a new first grade pupil, she would be hoisted onto the shoulders of an older student to “ring the first bell”, to start the school year and give the start of a day of celebrations.
“She doesn’t want to start the school year by taking online classes,” her mother, Lyudmila, taking a picture of her daughter outside school, holding the bell that would not ring.
“It’s a depressing and unwelcome experiment on childhood suffering,” James Elder, a spokesman for the United Nations Children’s Fund, said in an interview. “With thousands of schools damaged or destroyed, less than 60% are expected to open on time.”
The lack of a bomb shelter is just one of the many challenges that Ukrainian schoolchildren and their teachers face.
An estimated 2.8 million of the nation’s 6 million children have been forced to flee their homes as a result of the war. If they are lucky enough to get a seat in a class, it will likely be in an unfamiliar city.
It is estimated that another two million children live outside Ukraine and will remotely connect to attend school with Ukrainian teachers or try to integrate into new schools with classes taught in foreign languages.
The challenges in the government-controlled parts of Ukraine are in themselves daunting.
Teachers are receiving training on how to heal wounds on the battlefield and what to do in case they come across an unexploded device. In addition to pens, paper and chalk, schools are provided with extra blankets, flashlights, and first aid kits.
Unicef has reached around 1.7 million children and their caregivers by offering psychological support. And they have sent 50 mobile teams to areas that are difficult to reach due to the violent conflict.
“From Yemen to Syria, what we have learned is that children absolutely need this psychological break from war,” said Mr. Elder. “And attending classes plays a huge role in that.”
The fact that schools in Bucha and other hard-hit towns and cities across the country are opening up is in many ways extraordinary.
Anatolii Fedoruk, mayor of Bucha, said that in the first days of the war many families sought refuge in schools, thinking of them as places of refuge.
“They were wrong, they weren’t safe,” he said. During 32 days of Russian occupation, he said, schools were transformed into shooting posts and places of oppression.
He spoke outside school 5, where a tank was placed in the school yard, the blackened walls of a skyscraper across the street as evidence of the violence.
Mr. Fedoruk credited the nonprofit Global Empowerment Mission and its founder, Michael Capponi, with providing much-needed assistance to rebuild the city’s 15 schools so that most could open on September 1st.
Mr. Capponi said it cost about $ 80,000 to repair this school, but it was much more than the building itself.
The construction project, with all locally sourced materials, puts people to work, he said. The opening of the school means the return of the catering service and more jobs. It is a cycle that builds on itself. Above all, he said, it is an important step in reversing the refugee crisis.
“One of the most difficult questions for parents who are considering returning is whether their children can go to school in a safe environment,” he said. “This is not a complete post-war reconstruction, it is about bringing the children to class and the parents home.”