‘Bug-Out Bags’ and Bomb Shelters: It’s Back to School in Wartime Ukraine

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Ukrainian students in Kyiv attend their first day of school on Thursday, Sept. 1, 2022. Photo by Nolan Peterson/Coffee or Die Magazine.

Photo by Nolan Peterson/Coffee or Die Magazine.

KYIV, Ukraine — On Thursday, Sept. 1, parents and students congregated on the front steps of Kyiv’s Gymnasium No. 117 for the requisite first-day-of-school photographs. At one point, an administrator emerged from inside the building and chided, “It’s not safe to stand here!”

The crowd shuffled through the front doors and gathered within the school’s front hallway. Some two dozen parents snapped rapid-fire photos on their smartphones while the pupils, ranging from elementary- to high-school ages, neatly lined up in rows according to their class years.

Most of the students wore vyshyvankas, Ukraine’s traditional embroidered blouses. Some of the boys wore sports coats and ties. All had brought flower bouquets for their teachers. A row of high schoolers held a long, blue-and-yellow Ukrainian flag over their heads, and a banner at the back of the room read, “Hello School” in blue and yellow lettering.

The pupils smiled and carried on, evidently content to be around other kids their age. They shouldered backpacks filled with new notebooks and writing tools. Each student was also required by law to bring a separate “bug-out bag” filled with items they’d need in case of a Russian missile attack. Things like a copy of their birth certificate, a water bottle, energy bars, and an information card filled out with their name, home address, and medical history.

“It’s not so safe in Kyiv; the missiles can still come here,” said Yura Terentiev, whose 6-year-old daughter, Nina, was among the students starting the new school year at Gymnasium No. 117.

“I’m worried about her, but my daughter is very excited to go back to school, and to be around her classmates,” Terentiev told Coffee or Die Magazine.

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Students and parents stand outside Kyiv’s Gymnasium No. 117 on Thursday, Sept. 1, 2022, the first day of the new school year. Photo by Nolan Peterson/Coffee or Die Magazine.

Photo by Nolan Peterson/Coffee or Die.

As the students lined up and waited for the first bell, Terentiev stood to the side of the entrance hallway and took pictures. To his left was a poster board with a blue-and-yellow background titled, “My father defends Ukraine.” Many photos of soldier fathers filled the display, including several of Terentiev in the top left corner. Just one month ago, the 32-year-old returned from a combat deployment on the eastern front lines near the city of Lysychansk. It was tough going, and he went long stretches without talking to his family.

Terentiev, who owns a digital print shop in Kyiv, evacuated his wife and daughter abroad for a few months after the full-scale war began. Now they’re back home and trying to adjust to the new normal of wartime life — although Terentiev’s wife remains racked with anxiety because her husband is still a soldier and is slated to return to combat in one month. Yet, for today at least, the family is still able to enjoy one important part of their pre-war existence.

“It feels good that we saved Kyiv and the children can go back to school,” Terentiev said. “But the war is far from over. We still have hard days ahead.”

When the first bell sounded at Gymnasium No. 117, the students ceremoniously marched up the stairs toward their classrooms. Many parents, including Terentiev, lingered in the school’s entrance for a few moments longer. Such scenes played out across Ukraine on Thursday as students began a new academic year amid the countrywide threat of Russian missile attacks and a grinding land war on the country’s southern and eastern front lines.

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Students fill the front hallway of Gymnasium No. 117 in Kyiv on Thursday, Sept. 1, 2022. Photo by Nolan Peterson/Coffee or Die Magazine.

Photo by Nolan Peterson/Coffee or Die.

Known as Knowledge Day, the first day of school in Ukraine is a milestone event marked by many traditions, including a ceremonial formation for all the students before the first bell sounds and class begins. This year’s Knowledge Day was particularly special, for it marked the first time that many Ukrainian schools reopened their doors for in-person classes since the full-scale war began on Feb. 24.

“We spent the whole war on the outside of Kyiv, and it’s important to find a way for our daughter to live a normal life. That’s why we decided she would go to school today and not take online classes,” said Inna Pyvovar, whose 10-year-old daughter attended class at Kyiv’s Gymnasium No. 117 on Thursday.

In preparation for the coming academic year, Ukrainian lawmakers passed a law over the summer creating new national educational standards. According to the measure, all classes will be online in places under Russian occupation or on the front lines of the land war. Throughout the rest of Ukraine, parents have the choice of their child attending in-person classes or participating in “distance learning” via computer video feeds.

Each child attending in-person instruction is now required by law to bring a bug-out bag to class. According to the new wartime education standards, classes will continue within bomb shelters in case of air raid alerts.

“Making a decision to stay in Ukraine, you have to be ready for anything and consider all the risks of this decision,” said Svitlana Varvianska, a 40-year-old mother of two who lives in the central Ukrainian city of Poltava.

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A poster board titled “My father defends Ukraine” stands in the front hallway of Kyiv’s Gymnasium No. 117 on Thursday, Sept. 1, 2022. Photo by Nolan Peterson/Coffee or Die Magazine.

Photo by Nolan Peterson/Coffee or Die.

According to Kyiv’s City Council, roughly 180,000 schoolchildren currently live in the city. Of that number, about 138,000 — roughly 77% — will attend online classes, the City Council reported. About 20% of the capital city’s children remain abroad. Nationwide, the war has forced about two-thirds of Ukrainian children to flee their homes, UNICEF reported.

To assist in online education, the Ministry of Education and Science of Ukraine reached an agreement with Zoom, the internet communication platform, to provide free access for all Ukrainian schools this academic year, which ends in June 2023.

Ukrainian officials reported that about 20% of Ukrainian schools have already been destroyed or damaged during Russia’s full-scale invasion. Thus, Ukrainian parents must weigh their legitimate, wartime fears against the desire to reestablish some bedrock of stability in their children’s lives — especially since the COVID-19 pandemic has already caused successive years of intermittent school closures, robbing many children of valuable social interactions.

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Parents walk their children to school in central Kyiv on Thursday, Sept. 1, 2022. Photo by Nolan Peterson/Coffee or Die Magazine.

Photo by Nolan Peterson/Coffee or Die.

Vladyslav Chobotar, a 27-year-old living in the central Ukrainian city of Horishni Plavni, said his family first considered home-schooling his 10-year-old sister but ultimately opted for in-person classes.

“We decided that, for her social life, it would be better for her to go to school,” Chobotar said. “Right now, we are not afraid of sending her to school, as it is much safer there than in our apartment, which is on the fifth floor of a Soviet building. Plus, we’ve taught her to be responsible, so she knows she cannot ignore air raid sirens and has to obey what teachers say.”

Sergiy Levchuk, a Kyiv resident and president of the Ukrainian Karate Federation, decided that it was still too dangerous for his children to attend in-person classes in the capital city.

“In my view, they ought to go to school and learn,” Levchuk told Coffee or Die. “But talking about the present circumstances, they’re going to learn via the internet.”

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Students wait for the first bell at Kyiv’s Gymnasium No. 117 on Thursday, Sept. 1, 2022, the first day of the new school year. Photo by Nolan Peterson/Coffee or Die Magazine.

Photo by Nolan Peterson/Coffee or Die.

With a 9-year-old son in fourth grade and an 11-year-old son in sixth grade, Varvianska and her husband are generally against online learning because it excludes so many hands-on lessons invaluable to a child’s education, such as physical education classes, art classes, and biology and chemistry workshops. Even so, the couple decided to enroll their younger son in online classes because his school didn’t provide any information about its bomb-shelter preparations.

“No one knows how long he will stay at home,” Varvianska said, adding that the school for her older son has proposed a mix of in-person and at-home learning because the building’s bomb shelter isn’t big enough to accommodate every student.

Despite all the new safety rules, Varvianska remains “extremely skeptical” about the real-world utility of school bomb shelters in case of a direct hit by a Russian missile.

“It goes without saying that letting my kids go to school is scary,” Varvianska told Coffee or Die. “Objectively speaking, the basements are able to save our kids if the rocket hits nearby. However, if it hits directly, the basement is going to be destroyed.”

Nevertheless, Ukrainian parents are simply doing the best they can in an extraordinary time, Varvianska said, adding that there really is no safe place in Ukraine, since the Russian missile threat affects the entire country.

“Parents should understand that for a kid to stay home is still dangerous because there are random rocket strikes, especially in densely populated cities like Poltava,” Varvianska said. “Unfortunately, we don’t have a model of behavior to follow — we are creating our own path.”

Read Next: Ukraine Says Long-Awaited Southern Offensive Underway, Reports First Russian Line Broken

Nolan Peterson is a senior editor for Coffee or Die Magazine and the author of Why Soldiers Miss War. A former US Air Force special operations pilot and a veteran of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Nolan is now a conflict journalist and author whose adventures have taken him to all seven continents. In addition to his memoirs, Nolan has published two fiction collections. He lives in Kyiv, Ukraine, with his wife, Lilya.
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