When the war in Ukraine started in February, 12-year-old Sofiia Yakymenko stopped attending school in Kyiv.
The next month, she and her mother moved to Lviv as attacks in Kyiv escalated, a move that gave Yakymenko a bit of stability.
In Lviv, she enrolled in virtual lessons through a non-governmental organization called Smart Osvita, which has been offering online sessions to Ukrainian students displaced by the war through a website called New Ukrainian School.
“They’re so interesting — [the] people and [the] teachers — and they’re from different countries and they talk about really interesting things,” Yakymenko said.
The 12-year-old has been taking lessons ranging from geography to music to space, taught by volunteers from Ukraine and from around the world.
Since Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, more than six million people have been forced to flee the country and a further eight million are internally displaced within Ukraine. Educators say keeping kids in school is crucial for helping them cope with their new surroundings and to ensure they keep on top of their studies, despite the violence.
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“You can choose whatever you: want about biology, about different countries, about English. It’s like a different world,” said Sofiia’s mother Yuliia Lashko. “For parents and for children, it’s just an island of normal life.”
Studying from bomb shelters
Halyna Tytysh, the head of Smart Osvita, said the organization has been providing courses for teachers and principals for years. When the war broke out, it pivoted to online classes for students ranging from six to 15-years-old.
“We understood that children are very stressed and their educational process is disrupted,” Tytysh said. “We decided to have those online meetings, online lessons for children, just to distract them from reality and for them to be able to learn something new.”
Initially, she said the volunteer teachers were from within Ukraine but word of the initiative spread and soon, teachers from Canada, the U.S. Japan, Spain and the U.K. were signing up to help.
Tytysh said it is hard to estimate how many students have participated in the lessons, since links to the sessions are public, but said numbers have ranged from dozens to hundreds depending on the lesson.
“They feel that this is [a] safe place where they can join daily and talk about polar bears, talk about art, talk about absolutely different things that can distract them,” Tytysh said, adding some students log onto the online school from bomb shelters.
Volunteers from Canada
More than 60 volunteers from Canada have signed up to teach the lessons, and all have gone through David Falconer, who is helping to coordinate volunteers for Smart Osvita.
Falconer, who is a principal in Nunavut, got involved with the organization after hearing about the initiative online. He taught a lesson to Ukrainian students about life in the Arctic, complete with stories about polar bears, whales and northern lights.
He started reaching out to fellow teachers after his experience and has since been coordinating with school divisions, museums and even city zoos to arrange the virtual sessions.
Falconer has organized lessons with magicians, mountain climbers and even astronaut Chris Hadfield.
“What I find with this particular program is that it’s providing these children with the knowledge that there are lots of individuals out there … who are wanting to support them,” Falconer said.
‘Giving people hope’
Edmonton teacher Sherry Heschuk has taught a few lessons about paddling.
Heschuk has been paddling for roughly 30 years and said she felt called to help because she is a teacher.
“A lot of [the students] have never been in the water. They’ve never taken swimming lessons before,” she said. “[I] share with them how water is conserved, how water is also a place in which you can experience the outdoors.”
Heschuk said she herself has been learning from the experience and she wants students to know there are others in the world who are thinking of them.
“There is another world out there besides their continuous world of war,” she said.
Lashko, Yakymenko’s mother, said she appreciates the volunteers’ time.
“I’m very grateful for their enthusiasm…for giving people hope,” she said. “They are actually like our good friends for all of us, and we are very thankful to all of them.”