The war in Ukraine and its impact on education

Commencing on the 24th of February 2022, the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine has led to unfathomably disastrous outcomes, both internationally and within both countries. Of course, the scale of destruction had mapped onto virtually every aspect of the political, economic, and socio-cultural functioning of Ukraine’s society. Leaving no one unaffected by its persistent brutality, Russia’s military adventurism has highlighted the particularly pertinent problems surrounding the daily struggles of educational institutions, their children and their staff in producing a safe and stable environment that is conducive to the educational needs of the youth.

This article breaks down the Ukrainian educational struggles in the context of the waging of a genocidal war by its belligerent neighbour. Furthermore, contemporary innovative solutions to some of these educational issues will be outlined – as well as an assessment of their utility. Lastly, it is of essence to avoid perceiving these educational struggles as isolated cases specific to the Russo-Ukrainian War. On the contrary, these struggles must necessarily be understood in connection with other parts of the world which are consumed by the devastating impacts of chauvinism and warfare. Only from this comparative understanding can one begin to construct a fruitful perspective that is solutions-based, as opposed to the simple dissemination of platitudes devoid of meaning.  

Background Information 

The onset of the war has caused widespread devastation, particularly in the five oblasts (regions) affected the most being Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhia, Kherson and Kharkiv. As of the 9th of November 2023, over 3,790 educational facilities have been either damaged or totally destroyed. These are often the result of “aerial attacks, artillery shelling, rocket strikes”, and in certain cases even cluster munitions (Human Rights Watch, 2023). It is the imprecise nature of Russian weaponry that particularly causes them to indiscriminately shell and strike civilian infrastructure, if not also the vile disregard for the laws of war on the part of the invading army. As such, it is not uncommon for pupils’ school days to be interrupted by siren alerts forcing them to flee into a bomb shelter. There has even been evidence of deliberate striking of schools, with the shelling of one such building with the word “children” written in large as a message in front of it (CNN, 2022). 

In addition to this, there has been extensive occupation of schools by Russian troops, who utilize the space to store munitions, weaponry, vehicles, tanks, amongst other military equipment. The military-use of schools strictly breaches the laws of war. Launching attacks from such locations causes a reciprocation from the Ukrainian counter-battery fire, thus leading to even further destruction of schools. Beyond the exploitation of educational facilities for military purposes, there has been comprehensive evidence of the Russian army engaging in not uncommon looting and pillaging. The stolen equipment includes, but is not limited to, desktops and laptops, televisions, interactive whiteboards, and heating systems. The Human Rights Watch has summarized this by stating “what was not stolen was often broken”. Before ultimately leaving the premises, Russian forces engage in destruction and vandalism, often denoting hateful sentiment towards Ukrainian people (Human Rights Watch, 2023).  

The question should then be posed: how are students able to continue their studies given such wholescale destruction of their schools? Students who have found themselves without feasible schooling options had to resort to continue their studies from a different school in another area. Although moving is expensive, time-consuming, and therefore is not an option for the majority of people along the front lines, if not actively assisted by the government (which is also not always possible). Students became accustomed to studying in shifts, in between sirens, as well as remotely. The last option was made redundant to a great extent, given that Russia has deliberately and over a prolonged period of time targeted civilian infrastructure such as power and electricity stations, including the hydroelectric Kakhovka Dam in the Kherson region. In the rough conditions of power outages, major floods, and routine shelling multiple times a day, it is unsurprising that these adjustments have been insufficient in the face of Russia’s brutality. Therefore, the physical devastation of educational facilities has significantly impacted Ukraine’s ability to commit to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which plainly states in Article 26 that “everyone has the right to education” (UDHR, 1948).  

These educational struggles had not commenced only in 2022. Violent ethnic conflict was raging in the Donbas since the beginning of 2014, which already produced devastating realities for students, staff, and the entirety of the educational sector. This was further exacerbated by the effects of the global pandemic, Covid-19. At just about the time that Covid-19 was starting to subside, the full-scale invasion of Ukraine was launched. As such, for the past decade, students and staff were unable to catch a break as the situation progressively went from bad to worse to inconceivable as it stands today. The laws of war simply do not exist for the invading forces who have rampaged through thousands of schools and other educational facilities, using them for the purposes named above as well as for the detainment, torture, and execution of innocent civilians.  

Solutions in the Context of War 

In order for the educational system to continue apace, some modifications were needed to be made. Ukraine began establishing shelter zones in schools (Visit Ukraine, 2023). These were visited quite frequently as a result of the daily shelling and provided the security the students needed to maintain their education. Taking exams and going to lessons in an underground bomb shelter is far from an uncommon occurrence in Ukraine. In Kharkiv, the government has resorted to building “bunker schools” in the subway for a more safe, stable, and quiet environment conducive to studying, as the explosions will not be heard (CNN, 2024).  Further adding onto the stress for students and staff are the conditions of working in irregular shifts to ensure as many students are accommodated as possible. Whereas remote learning remains interrupted by the incessant shelling of Ukraine’s power infrastructure.  

An additional class was added to the educational curricula for all students. Announced by Ukrainian Deputy Interior Minister Kateryna Pavlichenko, ‘safety classes’ were introduced in schools. These special classes were dedicated to the critical important knowledge of life safety and civil defence (Visit Ukraine, 2022). Such practical information must be imparted upon the youth in order for them to understand how to behave in numerous circumstances, as well as the necessary precautions to be taken in an active war zone.  

Concluding Remarks 

The nature of the educational struggles in light of the Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have been examined, and the innovation that Ukraine has witnessed in solutions to these educational struggles have been duly noted. However, it is of essence to note that these need not be considered as solutions per se. The accommodation that Ukraine has made to the functioning of educational institutions should instead be construed as a temporary band-aid, one that harshly scratches the surface of the real problems facing many millions of children, teachers, and others included in the process. As such, our attention must shift to the source of boundless suffering – Russian imperialism.  

A long-lasting peace settlement is essential to the stability of educational institutions, and a critical necessity for the wellbeing of students all over Ukraine. However, this settlement must not be on the terms of the invader. That does not solve the problems of the educational issues students face in the temporarily occupied areas of Ukraine. The peaceful settlement of the conflict will necessary be on Ukrainian terms, including the necessary persecution of war criminals responsible for the decimation of Ukrainian education. For now, Ukraine is valiantly fighting for its freedom and independence from Russian aggression. Children had nothing to do with the decision to begin the invasion, yet they are ultimately paying the highest price. The end of Russia’s war on Ukrainian children is long overdue.