Yulia Kuryliuk, a teacher in a village near Lviv, woke on 24 February to find her country at war and gathered her sixth-grade class on Zoom. Two children tearfully asked when the fighting would end. She didn’t have an answer, but she led her students through breathing exercises to manage anxiety and encouraged them to hug a relative, pet, or stuffed animal for comfort.
With Ukraine’s education system upended by the war, teachers are helping provide stability for their students, along with other forms of emergency support such as evacuation and humanitarian aid. While the ministry of education and science declared a two-week break after Russia’s full-scale invasion began, lessons have now resumed where possible, though they are frequently interrupted by the wail of air raid sirens.
According to Ukraine’s education minister, Serhiy Shkarlet, as of 7 April, about 12,000 schools were holding classes online and 3.5 million students had returned to some form of learning.
Experts agree that education can play a positive role for children affected by war and “alleviate the psychological impact of armed conflict by offering routine and stability”, according to the intergovernmental Safe Schools Declaration.
A few times a week, Kuryliuk meets her students in person at the school library, where they play board games. “It’s a safe place to be with each other and to communicate,” she said, particularly for kids who are cooped up inside with their parents. She has also been reading to her sixth-graders over Zoom in the evenings. Some log in from Poland, Italy and Greece, where they’ve sought refuge, to connect with familiar faces from back home.
As Russian forces advanced, Anastasiia Luzhetska fled the small community near Kyiv where she was teaching art to stay with her family in the western Ukrainian city of Ternopil. She’s since marshaled a team of volunteers to organize games, arts and crafts, parties and other distractions for the many internally displaced children arriving in the area, creating spaces “where kids can feel like kids”. When it’s time to go, she said, the children and their parents “don’t want me or my volunteers to leave”.
A video posted on Facebook shows Luzhetska on a recent visit to a shelter for internally displaced people in Ternopil, where she scoots across the room on her knees, flapping her arms like wings. A group of children seated on the floor lean forward, shouting guesses at what kind of bird she is mimicking. “Swan!” a boy cries, and she walks over to give him a high five.
Still, the war is never far away. “One boy, Yegor, drew a house and after that, he said, ‘Oh, I think I don’t have a house any more, because they bombed it,'” Luzhetska said. “It’s hard to hear.”
Older students also feel a deep sense of uncertainty. Before 24 February, Vova, a 17-year-old from Borodyanka, a community of 13,000 north-west of Kyiv, was planning his high school graduation party and dreamed of studying journalism at university. Now, with his home and school in ruins after over a month of Russian occupation, he has no idea what his future holds.
When the attacks began, Vova, who was raised by his grandmother, sheltered with her in their basement, where they stayed for a week with no electricity. He heard constant explosions as Russian soldiers fired rockets and columns of military vehicles rolled through his neighborhood, shooting at houses. Amid the chaos, he texted with his biology teacher, Viktoria Tymoshenko, who was determined to help him evacuate and arranged a way out.
Tymoshenko “rescued me from this hell”, Vova said, speaking through an interpreter. They fled under shelling to a nearby village before moving further west, but they weren’t able to get his elderly grandmother out of the Kyiv region. In March, she was killed by a Russian missile that hit the house where she was staying.
Tymoshenko is now living in a village with Vova and another student she helped evacuate. Though it’s safer there, she is haunted by memories of their escape and worries about those who stayed behind. She messages students who have internet access to check in, but there are some she cannot reach, along with several of her colleagues.
Ukrainian forces liberated Borodyanka on April 1, but authorities fear there may be hundreds of residents buried under bombed-out apartment buildings. Russian occupiers destroyed part of their school and then set up a base there, Tymoshenko said, ransacking the classrooms and covering the walls and chalkboards with graffiti: “Russia, our beloved country!!!”
Tymoshenko and her students go on walks in the village to try to take their minds off the war, but there is “a tension you always feel and it does not disappear”, she said through an interpreter. Vova is grateful to his teachers for providing support, and despite everything he’s been through, he is eager to return to class.
Tymoshenko, Luzhetska and Kuryliuk are fellows with Teach for Ukraine, an organization that recruits and trains Ukrainians to teach in underserved schools. It is part of the Teach for All network, which includes Teach for America and Teach First in the United Kingdom. Since Russia’s invasion began, Teach for Ukraine has held workshops with psychologists to equip its teachers with techniques to support students during the war. Most are first-time educators and have been in constant contact, supporting and inspiring one another. “We are more than just colleagues, we are a family,” said Kuryliuk. “They all remind me every minute that I just don’t have the right to give up.”
“Even under the shelling they kept thinking about school,” Anastasiia Holovatiuk, another Teach for Ukraine fellow who was serving in nearby Makariv, said through an interpreter. The town was also recently liberated from Russian occupation. Her apartment was destroyed by Russian fire, but her students, who have continued to prepare for their university entrance exams, motivate her to keep going: “Watching these kids, you understand that it is necessary to continue and to move on.”
Educators stepped up to hold the community together, Holovatiuk said, cooking food for Ukrainian soldiers, helping locate basic necessities for residents and checking in with their students. Still, she said, while Ukraine has become a global symbol of resilience, its citizens have paid a high price. When people think about the war, she wants them to know “20 students from the 11th grade from Makariv lost everything they had”.
Holovatiuk’s student Masha, 17, is one of them. After fleeing the fighting in Makariv, Masha, her parents and her brother stayed with an acquaintance near Lviv, but the small apartment was soon crammed with multiple internally displaced families and three cats. To free up space, Masha’s parents decided she would travel alone to Poland, where they had found a family willing to take her in.
Masha packed a backpack and boarded a train so crowded people were sleeping on the floor; she tried to rest in the space between wagons. “It was like in the movies about the Holodomor,” she said through an interpreter, referring to the Stalin-engineered famine that killed four million Ukrainians in the 1930s. She wasn’t afraid to go to Poland, but “you just feel as though everything around you is being destroyed”, she said. “You go away from your parents, and when other people are with their families, it is not pleasant. You sit as if you were a puppy.”
Now Masha attends classes with other Ukrainian teenagers, with a translator available to help. She’s learning basic Polish and for the moment, there are no grades and no homework. Her new school is “a nice picture”, with a swimming pool, large gym, “cool classrooms” and kind teachers, but these amenities can’t eliminate the persistent sense of uncertainty.
Masha worries about her dad, who wants to return to Makariv to fix the electricity lines, and her insulin-dependent grandmother, whom she hasn’t been able to reach for weeks. She feels guilty that she is safe in Poland, able to go outside and spend time with new friends while her family is sitting in a basement.
Holovatiuk, who arrived in Makariv in August, was just getting to know her students when she had to flee and is furious that the war disrupted her plans to teach there for two years. She is currently staying in western Ukraine with her partner’s family but plans to return to Makariv when it’s safe and believes the school will play a central role as the community rebuilds.
“Each of us has nothing left but hope,” she said. “You keep thinking that you will be back, maybe tomorrow, maybe the day after tomorrow, or in a week, but I will be back.”
With translation by Alina Opriatova and Anna Doroshenko