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“Traumatized and Displaced but Determined, Kids in Ukraine Head Back to School” by Elissa Nadworny / NPR (abridged)

KHARKIV and DNIPRO, Ukraine — The first day of school in Ukraine is a big deal. Known as the Day of Knowledge, there are usually big celebrations — with rehearsed dances, concerts and lots of balloons. Children dress up in traditional Ukrainian vyshyvankas with brightly colored embroidery. Families bring teachers bouquets of flowers — there are usually so many flowers on the first day that the classrooms are bursting with colorful blooms. 

This fall, the war with Russia has disrupted — but not destroyed — this beloved tradition in a country that places enormous importance on education.

At a small private school in the city of Dnipro, the day starts with a teacher leading each new first-grader through a hula hoop decorated with ribbons and leaves — initiating them into their school-aged life. Older students cheer while families try and catch every moment on their phones. Because of the war, this is one of just a handful of schools in the city offering in-person classes. 

Two older students, Mariia and Varya, both 9, watch from a shared chair in the corner, holding hands and giggling. The friends hadn't seen each other since school shut down in February, when Russia invaded Ukraine. Watching them hold hands, reunited, Varya's mother, Alina Shtefan, remarked that the moment almost felt normal — when so much isn't normal. Her husband, a doctor, is in the armed forces and away from home. Both mom and daughter have been looking forward to this day — to coming to school — for months. After more than six months of staying close to home and rarely seeing friends, the start of school offers a bit of the familiar.

But even walking to school this morning wasn't as normal as Shtefan thought it would be.

"Usually the streets are filled with children and families going to school," she says, "but this morning it was just us."

Nearly 4 million students returned to school in Ukraine this month, despite the war. The majority will do some form of online learning – in some cases, it's because the school has been destroyed by bombs or is too close to the fighting. Schools offering in-person learning are required to have adequate bomb shelters. One thing remains true for all Ukrainian school children: as the war rages on, they're dealing with a lot of trauma. And their teachers are determined to provide support.

"It's the destruction of childhood." Schools continue to be targeted by Russian attacks.

Since the Russian invasion in February, 2,177 education facilities have been damaged, and 284 have been destroyed, according to the Ministry of Education and Science. A new report from Save the Children, a U.S-based humanitarian organization, found an average of four preschools a day have been damaged or destroyed in the war in Ukraine.

Even for schools that are intact, the daily missile attacks and shelling in Kharkiv make offering safe, in-person learning a major challenge. With its proximity to Russia, there are often only a few minutes between the air raid sirens and an explosion. Even if a school had a shelter, there wouldn't be enough time to get children down there.

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