A blend of hope and resilience permeated the beginning of the first day of school in Kyiv, where many children were visiting a classroom for the first time since the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion.
“To be back in full-time lectures is very nice,” 11th grader Semyon Chernega told Kyiv Post.
“These are special feelings – when you sit with the guys at the same desk, listening to the material.”
11th grader Semyon Chernega talks on the phone at School Number 5 in Bucha. PHOTO: Roman Hrytsyna
But the day was marred when police received threats that explosives and mines had been planted at schools across the city.
At the time of writing none had been found and the call was likely a hoax, but emergency services were checking every single educational institution in Kyiv.
The police force also said any evacuations would be decided by schools and the police, calling on people to “stay calm.”
Undeterred, celebrations to mark the start of this academic year were held in schools throughout the capital.
Traditional Ukrainian dress was very much the uniform of the day. PHOTO: Roman Hrytsyna
Traditionally, the first day of school in Ukraine has been a sea of white shirts and blouses, symbolizing purity and the promise of new beginnings.
This year, however, there was a notable shift in attire as embroidered shirts took center stage, symbolizing a deep connection to Ukrainian culture and a nation's unwavering solidarity.
Notably absent were the usual bouquets of flowers that students would typically present to their teachers. Parents were forewarned by teachers that such floral gestures were deemed inappropriate this year.
Instead, they were encouraged to contribute money for the needs of the Armed Forces of Ukraine.
Children at Kyiv's School Number 285. PHOTO: Liya Vlasiuk
The day's festivities commenced with the national anthem followed by a minute of silence – a solemn tribute to those who have lost their lives in the war.
In Obolon, one mother, the parent of a first-grader, expressed her gratitude for the ability to send her child to school during trying times.
“I am proud that I can freely lead my child to school during this difficult time, where he begins a new stage of life and joy that there were no worries and explosions today, at least,” she said.
Another mother echoed the sentiments of many, saying: “I trust the teacher and hope for the best.”
“I understand that there is danger everywhere now, but it’s necessary for children to learn and gain knowledge."
School Number 5 director, Mykhailo Nakonechnyi, welcomes his students in Bucha. PHOTO: Roman Hrytsyna
For parents, the focus has shifted over the past few years from academic performance to their children's safety.
“Over the past few years, values have changed,” one mother said. “Now the main thing is that the child is safe. I also worry about how she will adapt and how she will feel.”
“But I believe that by passing these tests, in the end, they will give our children strength and perseverance in their future.”
Smiles all round at School Number 5 in Bucha. PHOTO: Roman Hrytsyna
The war is never far away and although there were no air raid alerts during the day, schools have had to prepare for the inevitable Russian airstrikes which are now part of everyday life in Kyiv and the rest of Ukraine.
“When an alarm occurs, classroom teachers gather their class and lead them to a shelter,” a mother in Obolon said. “The shelter is equipped with everything you need. There are desks to continue the lesson and a recreation area for children to relax in.
“There is also water and a snack if the alarm is long. The teacher stays in touch with her parents all the time. After the alarm ends, the children return to class.”
11th graders mill around on their first day back. PHOTO: Roman Hrytsyna
In Bucha, Andriy Nechiporenko was dropping his 9th-grade daughter off at School Number 5.
“The last three years have been hard for everybody,” he told Kyiv Post. “Covid, then the war – they didn’t really study properly.
“It seems to me that new lessons need to be added – how to live in this environment.”
A celebratory mood prevailed, even in the midst of the war. PHOTO: Roman Hrytsyna
The day was also celebrated by Ukraine’s officials.
“The nation preserved the opportunity for children to go to Ukrainian school,” the head of Ukraine's presidential office, Andriy Yermak, said on social media. “Ukrainian teachers are real heroes.”
The 🇺🇦 nation has preserved the opportunity for children to go to 🇺🇦 schools. We do this every day, fighting those who commit genocide against our people. But not all our children have this opportunity. Russians are kidnapping 🇺🇦 children and forcing them to learn in RF. pic.twitter.com/uOqadKWoZp— Andriy Yermak (@AndriyYermak) September 1, 2023
And in a video released to mark the day, General Valery Zaluzhny, commander-in-chief of the Ukrainian armed forces, said: “The main thing is that our children will study.
“And our educators, teachers and lecturers will teach.
"Because knowledge and culture are what distinguish us from the enemy.”
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