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Teachers in Ukraine say the focus is on keeping students safe in the new school year

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

A new school year is underway in Ukraine, where active fighting and a lack of bomb shelters in schools means most children are learning online. NPR's Elissa Nadworny spent time with teachers and students and brings us this report.

ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: The first day of school in Ukraine is usually a big deal. Teachers are showered with bouquets of flowers from families. There's usually a celebration where students dress up. Sometimes there are concerts. And at School 134 in Dnipro, a city in east central Ukraine, they usually have a selected student ring a bell to mark the official start of the day.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL RINGING)

NADWORNY: On this day, in the middle of the war with Russia, that bell with yellow and blue ribbons is sitting on the head of school's desk.

OLHA MORHUN: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: "Each teacher has got a bell, and they're going to ring it online," says Olha Morhun (ph), who is the acting head of school.

MORHUN: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: "Today is not just the day of knowledge," she says. "It's the day the school family flies home." Except there are no students in the school today. But there are teachers, dressed up in each of their classrooms, ready to begin the school year online.

MORHUN: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: Morhun rushes us down the hall to see the teachers in action.

TETIANA SAIROCK: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #1: (Non-English language spoken).

SAIROCK: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #2: (Non-English language spoken).

SAIROCK: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #3: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: Tetiana Sairock (ph) is greeting her 12- and 13-year-olds.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #4: (Non-English language spoken).

SAIROCK: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: "Turn on your camera," she says.

Downstairs, a first grade class is doing introductions.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #5: (Non-English language spoken).

ANASTACIA VOLKOVYNSKA: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: In sparkly red heels, Anastacia Volkovynska asks her students to tell her what they like.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #6: (Non-English language spoken).

VOLKOVYNSKA: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: "I like a cat," says a girl from the screen. "Marvelous," exclaims the teacher. Behind her, a string of letters reads, first time to the first grade.

OLHA CHUDNIVETZ: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: A few doors down, a third grade teacher has brought her grown daughter to class to help her run the Zoom session.

CHUDNIVETZ: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: "I'm going to play a song, and you have to guess it," says Olha Chudnivetz (ph).

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "UKRAINIAN NATIONAL ANTHEM")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing in non-English language).

CHUDNIVETZ: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: It's the Ukrainian national anthem. The students join her and her daughter in singing along.

Down in the basement, there is a bomb shelter here. But they've decided to do mostly online anyways.

MORHUN: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: "Our most important goal is safety," says the head of school. "That's why we're all online still."

Before the war, the school served about 1,500 students. Enrollment is actually up today because students from other areas of Ukraine, like Kharkiv and Luhansk, have relocated to this city.

MORHUN: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: "We're sad everything is this way," says Morhun.

MORHUN: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: "But we won't be discouraged."

MORHUN: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: "Our main task is to give the children this feeling."

In the northern city of Kharkiv, classes are also online, but it's a much more tense situation. Nightly shelling and missile attacks have damaged several schools in just the last week.

UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: At a community center, a police officer is instructing 9- and 10-year-olds how to stay safe during the war. He's introducing the topic of the two-wall rule.

UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: He draws a diagram on the board. There's a circle to represent an explosion, two lines and a stick figure on the other side.

UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: "The first wall will take the explosion," he says.

UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: "The second wall will get the debris from the first wall."

Nine-year-old Sasha is listening intently. He tells us he's disappointed he's not going to school in person.

SASHA: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: Sasha says he hates when things are out of order. And lately with the war, a lot of things have been out of order.

SASHA: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: "This makes me really uncomfortable," he says.

What do you do when you feel that way?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

SASHA: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: "I take three deep breaths and then three normal breaths," he says, just like his dad taught him when the war started. His mom and dad are at home with him when he's doing online school, which makes him feel safe. And he says the breathing technique - it's been helping.

Elissa Nadworny, NPR News, Kharkiv, Ukraine. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Elissa Nadworny reports on all things college for NPR, following big stories like unprecedented enrollment declines, college affordability, the student debt crisis and workforce training. During the 2020-2021 academic year, she traveled to dozens of campuses to document what it was like to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic. Her work has won several awards including a 2020 Gracie Award for a story about student parents in college, a 2018 James Beard Award for a story about the Chinese-American population in the Mississippi Delta and a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for excellence in innovation.