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Adapting Education to War: innovating amid challenges, schools in bomb shelters, reconstruction

In recent years, Ukrainian children’s education quality has dropped dramatically. Among other problems, the war has had a huge impact on education. Despite these difficult conditions, there are still those who continue to work towards a better future for Ukrainian children. The savED organization is one such example.

What is the current state of Ukrainian education? How do children receive their education amid air raid alarms and shelling? How severe is the drop in education quality? And are there any prospects for a better future?

Adapting Education to War: innovating amid challenges, schools in bomb shelters, reconstruction

Brian Bonner: Hello, one and all; welcome to Ukraine Calling. I’m your host, Brian Bonner, and we have an education rock star, superstar, and more in the studio today. Anna Novosad, welcome.

Anna Novosad: Hi, Brian. What an intro.

Brian Bonner: Well, you are. A little background. You were one of the youngest ministers ever, I think, in independent Ukrainian history. At 29, you took over as education minister, riding the wave of Zelensky’s popularity, Servant of the People (political party – ed.) popularity. And I think what you’ve done since you stopped being the minister is as important or more. You’ve started a foundation called Save Ed.

Anna Novosad: Yeah.

Brian Bonner: Correct me if I got the figures wrong, but you’ve raised $10 million. You’ve worked in 70 communities in five regions, helping to restore access to education, especially on the front lines where it’s needed the most, to 60,000, maybe more, students. Digital learning centers, refurbishing damaged schools, and so forth. This is really quite an achievement.

Anna Novosad: Thank you so much. And thank you for digging so deep into what we do and knowing the numbers.

Current challenges of Ukrainian education

Brian Bonner: Well, I don’t know all the numbers. And that’s why I have you here, it’s very impressive. The sad thing is we are ending our second full academic year at war. Plus, we had a partial one in the winter and spring of 2022. Can you give me the big picture of where we stand? It’s easier to measure damage to buildings, but maybe you can give us a sense of where we are online, and offline and how far behind some of these children have gotten.

Anna Novosad: That’s indeed very important to talk about, not only about the damaged infrastructure, even though numerically, it is also, unfortunately, very impressive. By today, Russia has very deliberately targeted, destroyed, or severely damaged every seventh school in our country.

Brian Bonner: Does that come to 1,000?

Anna Novosad: That’s more than 1,500. Before the big war, we had 14,000 schools. However, these are buildings, right? They do not necessarily tell a lot about how the quality suffered. But what matters is that this September will be the third academic year during the full-scale invasion. And then you also add two years of COVID.

So in total, it will be five years of heavily interrupted learning. It’s basically going to be the entire generation of young Ukrainians of primary school kids, from first to fourth grade, who might have never been to school at all, especially in the eastern and the southern parts of Ukraine, all of those bordering Russia in the north, Kyiv, Chernihiv regions.

The damage is pretty big. This academic year, which started on September 23, saw almost 2 million Ukrainian schoolchildren out of four studying either completely online or in a blended format.

Brian Bonner: Almost half.

Anna Novosad: Yeah, almost half. The situation has improved a little bit until today. The ministry says that I just got off a call with the ministry, and they say that now it’s around 600,000 kids doing online. So, I don’t know about blended. Well, that figure dropped. However, an extensive number of students still stay at home. Those who experienced COVID and had kids of school age or preschool age know how horrible it is. Regardless of how good your device is, you will never substitute online learning. You get those skills, attitudes, and values only in an offline environment.

So I’m now traveling around the country, visiting all these frontline communities where we work with SavEd. I meet a lot of kids, well, in the bomb shelters predominantly, and it’s my subjective feeling, but a lot of them, those who stayed for more than two years of the big war online, are very timid; they’re very anxious, they are scared. They don’t know how to communicate with you because they lack the skills, especially social skills. Social skills are close to nonexistent. They spend their time behind the screen.

And I’m not even talking about the cases where there is nothing at home regarding equipment. Talking about numbers, the whole world learned about the PISA results last year. PISA is a big international study of education quality. It takes place every four years. So it’s a cycle. Ukraine first took part in PISA in 2019. We introduced the first report for Ukraine in December 2019. The next four years were reported last October. PISA measures a couple of competencies; first, it measures 15-year-olds, such as those in the ninth grade. It measures science, mathematics, and reading.

The biggest drop in Ukrainian students within four years is in reading. It dropped more than 1.5 academic years. In other words, four years ago, 15-year-old Ukrainians read 1.5 academic years better than current kids in the ninth grade.

This is not only about the ability to physically read the book. No, it’s about the ability to interpret the text. It’s about understanding the author’s opinion, distinguishing facts from fiction, understanding manipulation, and critical thinking. And you know how crucial it is for Ukraine to be at war with Russia.

Brian Bonner: How did we do in the other measurements? Are we falling behind in all of them?

Anna Novosad: All of them dropped. However, reading is the worst. Another dimension is also decreasing rapidly. It’s the gap between rural and urban areas. We know that rural areas in Ukraine are pretty impoverished. It’s not only a Ukrainian thing that rural areas have lower-quality education; in the US, it’s pretty much the same.

However, it matters how big this gap is. When Ukraine first took part in PISA four years ago, it was 2.5 academic years. In other words, a regular kid from a very regular, not private, not elitist school in Kyiv would be learning 2.5 years faster than his peer in a regular school in a village. And now, after only nine months of war, because this is when the PISA results came out, this distinction is 4.5 years.

This is critical for us because a huge number of schools are in rural areas. This means that we are rapidly losing the quality of human capital.

Brian Bonner: That sounds like always; the poor rural areas suffer the most. Of course, they don’t have the equipment or the safety that the cities have. How do we catch up? Is there a plan to catch them up? Because if hundreds of thousands or even millions of schoolchildren fall behind, it will hurt us as a nation.

Anna Novosad: Well, of course, I cannot speak on behalf of the state, even though I admire the efforts of the ministry and the current team to fix the situation somehow. However, I also don’t envy them because the current ministerial team worked in the worst possible circumstances and conditions during the entire period of regained independence in Ukraine. They are short on money and other resources.

They face challenges everywhere. They need to build bomb shelters, ensure security, and pay teachers’ salaries without funding. On top of that, they need to deal with learning loss. One thing to understand for everyone who thinks about today’s Ukraine and how they can help is that different Ukrainian regions are in very different situations.

The way Lviv or Ternopil are now doing, including in education, is much better than Kharkiv, Zaporizhia, or Mykolaiv. It’s safer, so kids go to offline learning. They can enjoy extracurricular activities when there is no air raid. They can study above ground. They do not have to sit only in bomb shelters. However, you cannot compare Kharkiv to Mykolaiv because the Mykolaiv Region, including the city of Mykolaiv, is now in a much better situation than a year and a half ago. They are preparing to reopen schools for offline learning by next September.

In the Kharkiv region, you can only study underground if there is a safe, secure bomb shelter where you can comfortably learn. Otherwise, there’s no access to normal air no ventilation, and you just suffocate.

This means that we need very different strategies for different regions. There is no one-size-fits-all policy available, including for catch-up learning. My position is that they need to have very agile strategies. Of course, they all need to be coordinated by the ministry, but every region and even parts of the region need different levels of attention.

The most critical thing right now is to resume as much offline interaction as possible. There is a coalition procuring laptops and tablets for kids. It’s an admirable effort, but it fixes a tiny part of the problem. Humans need human interaction. We cannot sit at home for years.

For instance, in the Kharkiv region, the only possibility is to start building underground schools or capital refurbishing existing bomb shelters. Kyiv’s recovery is not as great as many might think in the liberated areas of the Mykolaiv or even the Kyiv region. There are still many villages where Russians destroyed, burned, and exploded schools and kindergartens. But in the Kyiv region, you can rebuild schools, use temporary solutions, and put up modular buildings to get kids back to learning.

To answer your question more directly, we must resume some forms of offline learning. Resuming access to education does not only mean rebuilding a school. Other creative ways to do that depend on geographical factors.

War with education: Russian genocide of Ukrainians

Brian Bonner: That is a lot. I missed in the introduction that Ukrainska Pravda named you one of the hundred most powerful and influential women in the country. Deservedly so. When I led the Kyiv Post, we named you a top 30 under 30 winner 2019. We saw your talent.

We wrote then, and unfortunately, these are the good old days when you faced a daunting list of longstanding classroom issues, especially in village schools: textbook shortages, low salaries for teachers, poor facilities, outdated equipment, and more.

And then we had COVID, and then we had the full-scale war. All our extra money generally goes to the armed forces because we need to win the war to achieve all these goals. It is heartbreaking because, you know, we had actually moved forward.

I also had a former minister, Serhiy Kvit, on a recent program, and we talked about reforms that got moving in 2014. I wanted to ask you, this strategy of bombing Ukrainian textbooks and schools, is this part of a genocidal campaign in your view?

Anna Novosad: Well, it’s a very straightforward question. Of course, it is. I hope it is obvious to most people. And, of course, I will reiterate that Russia’s goal is not to gain our territories. No. Russia’s strategic aim is to ensure that we do not exist as a nation, as a state, and as an ethnicity. Thus, ethnic and religious cleansing, stealing our kids, forcefully converting them, brainwashing them, and converting them.

Brian Bonner: Or kidnapping.

Anna Novosad: Or kidnapping them and so-called retraining them in the camps.

Brian Bonner: Wiping the Ukrainian identity out of them.

Anna Novosad: Yes, exactly. Bombing the schools, burning the textbooks. This is all part of that strategy. Unfortunately, Russians are very skilled and quite successful in that. You can see that when they occupy territories, for instance, what happened in Kherson, Zaporizhia, and Donetsk. After they occupy a territory, one of the first things they do is bring their teachers, install their educational programs, and immediately bring Russian textbooks. They know, and have tested throughout the centuries, that education is an important tool to brainwash and keep future generations ideologically hooked.

I’ve been to many communities with completely bombed schools. When my visa in the dialogue said, «Well, you understand that perhaps there were Ukrainian troops,» this argument does not always hold because Russians bomb schools not only on the frontline but also in Lviv and Zhytomyr, wherever they can.

There was one school in Katuzhanka, a small town in the Kyiv Region. At the start of the invasion, it was occupied for four months, and Russian generals and commanders of the Battle of Kyiv lived and stayed in that school. It was their headquarters. The locals and teachers there said the Russians removed pictures of Ukrainian poets, writers, and historical figures from the walls and put up portraits of Lenin.

What kind of mindset invades a country and brings portraits of Lenin to hang in schools? These little things tell a lot. Russians understand that we will never outnumber them. Numerically, we are losing. We are dying faster, and the only thing we can do is respond asymmetrically. In the long term, that asymmetrical response involves investing in good-quality human capital and intelligent people.

Brian Bonner: That’s why education has to be the number one investment strategy, not just an expenditure.

Reanimating education: the strategy

Brian Bonner: I heard you say, as many Ukrainians do, that this war has been going on for 400 years, and there’s no reason to believe it’s going to end anytime soon. Do we need a different strategy in education? I’m considering applying lessons from the energy sector.

I heard DTEK (Ukrainian energy company – ed.) CEO Max Timchenko says they repaired stuff last year, and then it got bombed again this year. What happens if we repair it again? The same could be said for schools, couldn’t it? And while you’ve raised an impressive amount, I think the government can still spend billions and hundreds of billions compared to our charity.

Anna Novosad: It all comes down to the question: If we do not try to figure out ways to resume access to services, what is our strategy? What do we tell people in the Kharkiv Region? What do we tell them if we do not help them with educational services? «Guys, you have to leave?» Where do they go? If we do not collectively help the communities to resume access to services—and in this sense, I would call education a service—it’s, of course, a value.

It’s a kind of long ideological talk, whether it’s a service or a welfare value, but still, it’s one of the critical services. People are choosing whether to return to their communities based on the criteria of whether there’s a school or kindergarten available. So, to me, it all comes down to that. If we want people to stay there and to come back if it is still livable, we have to ensure they have these services.

I’m not an energy expert, and I do little to understand whether it is possible to replace all our big old energy plants with more decentralized, smaller, portable energy stations in the long term. However, in the education sector, it’s a temporary strategy that we have to apply. In Kharkiv Region, even though Russians bombed more than 50 percent of the schools, even if they were intact, you still cannot attend them because it’s not safe. It takes 40 seconds to two minutes for a missile to reach you. So, you have to study underground. That means basements have to be converted into temporary schools. It does not equal a school, but is still better than nothing. Like five hours of electricity in Kyiv is still better than nothing. So, the interim strategy is like that.

If people live there without forced evacuation, we must ensure they have access to services. If they have to be bused to a different community, or for instance, if kids of upper secondary school, those who are more mature, can be used and live for a week somewhere in a boarding school and have access to learning, we have to ensure that. We are in a situation where a traditional approach to schooling does not work, and this access has to happen in a very creative way outside.

Refugees and education

Brian Bonner: I wanted to ask you about the refugee situation. Studies have shown the longer the war goes on, the fewer people will come back. Most of the people abroad are women of childbearing age with children. How do we get them back?

Anna Novosad: I wish I had the answer. The answer is that the war has to end first, and there must be security guarantees and safety in Ukraine. That’s not happening from a near perspective. I’d start from a different angle. I often think that regretfully, maybe I will disappoint you with my answer, but we have to, in this situation now, think, whom do we help first?

If resources are limited and attention from state organizations, civil society, and international partners is limited, whom do you help first? These should be those who are most vulnerable and need much more attention now. To me, these are the kids who stay in Ukraine, especially in eastern and southern bordering communities with Russia and Belarus.

Brian Bonner: It makes sense, yes.

Anna Novosad: And this is where our biggest effort has to be. Because if we angle it right now to return all or at least a part of our kids and their families who stay abroad, I’m not sure we can at this very moment influence the factors that make their decision.

Regretfully, we have to start thinking about strategies. How do we, as a state, as a country, all state institutions, and as civil society, as foundations like ours, think about programs to work with our emerging diaspora? We will never be able to create the same favorable conditions that exist there, at least in the coming decades. How do we ensure they have the same good quality of higher education as they will have there?

This is the true picture of the situation. However, it doesn’t mean we have to forget about them. There have to be programs and actions. How do we involve and include them in the recovery of Ukraine? This could be scholarship programs with Ukrainian and European or other universities for Ukrainians staying abroad. This could be something like the Peace Corps, but for Ukrainians staying abroad, helping during the summer or year, whatever, helping communities in Ukraine to recover. We have to look for ways to engage them at least partially. I’m mostly talking about young people, kids, and students.

Brian Bonner: It’s a mixed bag. Many people and you know more than I do, but some will come back after the war. Others, their kids are already in the third year of German school, have friends, speak the language, and have a job.

Anna Novosad: We are talking about half a million Ukrainian school-age kids staying abroad. This is an astonishing number. For me, it’s very hard to reckon how many of those we will ever be able to return. But then again.

Brian Bonner: Which is also part of Putin’s strategy.

Anna Novosad: Exactly. But I think the worst thing we can do is blame these people, victimize them, or cut ties with them just because they made this choice. I wouldn’t equate it to men who left and made that choice. It’s a completely different ethical issue. But when we talk about the kids and their families’ choices, we have to encompass all stakeholders and players in Ukraine and show that we welcome their efforts to be helpful to Ukraine, including actively engaging them in advocacy.

Just a bit off-topic, if you recall, there was a huge uproar in Ukraine on Facebook, which is still very popular among the millennial generation, when the US helped take down missiles and drones over Israel but didn’t help the same way in Ukraine. It’s just a tiny fraction of the answer. However, the State of Israel spent more than 60 years lobbying, advocating on the Hill, working with congressmen in DC heavily, and working with its diaspora in the United States to push for support, as the State of Israel has, right? It’s just a part, of course, but if we have a growing diaspora, why don’t we work to engage them in advocacy efforts in Ukraine?

Brian Bonner: Exactly. So we’re starting to see some of that.

Anna Novosad: Yeah, absolutely.

Personal loss

Brian Bonner: I know you’ve spent a lot of time in my country, America, my other country. Well, you know more teachers than I do, but I have experience with the public school system here, and they are saints because they work very hard and they’re very devoted for not much pay, as we know, sort of like journalists—I digress.

But anyway, you lost a very good friend in Borodyanka. You were going to go into the education business with him.

Anna Novosad: Yeah. When I resigned in 2020, I had difficulty figuring out what to do next. And one of the ideas that was always somehow with me is to start my own school. Private education is allowed in Ukraine and was quite popular—it was on the rise before the big war—private schooling, private kindergartens.

So, I was looking into the idea of opening a secondary school, a lyceum, a private one. Actually, when I was in the US on a fellowship, I devoted a lot of my time to researching and learning from American high school models, which, in many cases, are quite good.

I had a colleague, Mark Bobrovsky. He was the deputy principal of a school here in Kyiv—a very progressive, modern educator and a brilliant personality. He had the misfortune of living in Borodyanka, and he refused to leave. I remember we spoke for the last time with our team on Zoom on February 21st when everyone was evacuating from Kyiv. I was doing that. He said, «I won’t leave. Who needs Borodyanka?» Back then, in any tiny settlement around Kyiv, you couldn’t imagine that carpet bombing could happen.

Brian Bonner: People went to Bucha and Irpin to escape for a peaceful life.

Anna Novosad: Exactly. Now it all seems like, «Hey, you should have thought about it.» He was in the house that was bombed by Russian aviation. We managed to recover his body from under the debris only in early to mid-April, when the Ukrainian armed forces regained control of Kyiv and Chernihiv regions, basically when the occupation started.

Brian Bonner: Traumatic. The trauma runs pretty deep in this nation right now.

Anna Novosad: Yeah, that’s true.

Opinions on the government

Brian Bonner: I wanted to ask whether you still felt this way. One of your successors came under your criticism, and you had said in an article that (Denys) Shmyhal (prime minister of Ukraine—ed.) education is the last priority. I believe he was one of the education ministers and a bit of an apologist for (Viktor) Yanukovych.

Anna Novosad: Yes.

Brian Bonner: Do you still feel that way about the government?

Anna Novosad: It’s a very tricky question. On the one hand, there has been this self-imposed censorship. It was very omnipresent among the journalists, but also, in general, in the society.

Brian Bonner: Well, we all want to win the war.

Anna Novosad: However, it’s very important to call things as they are. Well, of course, things have changed dramatically since the 24th of February, 2022, and what was a point of criticism before that is now very different. First of all, there is a completely different team in place in the Ministry of Education.

Oksen Lisovy, the minister, I admire him a lot. He volunteered as a soldier when the war started. He spent more than a year on the front line in Donetsk and Kharkiv regions. And I had the honor to ask, beg, and advocate for his “yes” to at least go for an interview as a minister of education. I remember I called him. Well, I knew that the governmental team was looking for a new minister, and he was among one of the candidates that was on the table.

And I called him. He was in Kreminna. And it was around 10 p.m. And he was around Starlink so that he could talk. And I asked him, Oksen, if not for you, I don’t think that there is anyone else currently who is decent and professional enough and who can, on the other hand, be approved by the president because it’s also an important thing to take into account whether a person is, what’s the English word? I don’t know, like passable. In the office of the president. He agreed to take on this mission.

It was very hard to compose the team. Unfortunately, the civil service in Ukraine suffered a huge blow it. We are in a very difficult, complicated, not difficult, complicated political system. The decision-making process is very opaque.

Sometimes, there is a not very clear division of responsibilities. So, all things considered, it was very hard to assemble a team. You find people who would basically volunteer to go for civil service and to be blamed and hated and work, you know, basically serve.

Brian Bonner: It’s a thankless task but a necessary task.

Anna Novosad: So I, by no means, criticize them now.

Brian Bonner: They’re more to your liking.

Anna Novosad: It’s not just about my subjective liking. Like I judge people by what they do. And they do the necessary things. However, for them, you know, if someone is expecting that miraculously during the war, it’s also possible to reform the education system. This person should be either naive or stupid. To me, it would be a miracle if we even managed to preserve the status quo.

Brian Bonner: Preserve a status quo. Set that aside, our great reform ambitions for now?

Anna Novosad: Unfortunately, your resources, time, attention, and money go towards ensuring basic needs, like teacher salaries. During the first year of the war and a bit more, the World Bank paid teacher salaries. The World Bank will also refund cars and subventions for bomb shelters. We are not completely, but to a large degree, dependent on international institutions and financial assistance in education. People don’t know that. So, even ensuring the status quo, trying to hold it, is a big victory in these circumstances.

Brian Bonner: Is that the way teacher salaries work now? Are they being reimbursed internationally?

Anna Novosad: Partially. The macro-financial support we receive goes towards that.

Brian Bonner: So we really need our partners.

Anna Novosad: That’s for sure.

«We Are You» documentary

Brian Bonner: I haven’t seen your documentary, «We Are You,» which you’ve screened all over America and other places. Where can people watch it if they want to?

Anna Novosad: Just a few words about what it is. We at SavEd fundraise and work on recovering access to education in different formats. We have a lot of infrastructural work and soft educational programs, but one of our work streams is advocacy, telling the world what’s happening in Ukraine’s education sector.

We highlight how deliberate and conscious Russia is in destroying our access to educational services as part of a larger strategy to eliminate us as a nation. We experiment with different ways to deliver that message when the world is bored.

Brian Bonner: Short attention span.

Anna Novosad: You are in the war, but you must also entertain the foreigners. Last year, we went to the U.S. and presented our research about the first year of education during the war. This year, we did the same with support from the European Commission. Alongside that, we made a documentary about five Ukrainian teenagers from different war-damaged regions, such as Kharkiv, Zaporizhia, and occupied Nova Kakhovka, telling their stories.

The idea was not to focus on drama and tragedy or to beg for help but to tell our story from a perspective of strength and resilience. We wanted to show their American and European peers that they are the same kids with similar dreams, working on progressive projects and aspiring to world-class universities, but now they must deal with the war.

The documentary, which is short, just 50 minutes, was shown in many high schools in the United States. The thought is that this future generation of American citizens, who will make decisions and vote, needs to understand what their peers are going through in Ukraine.

We conducted many screenings in high schools and universities, and they were well received. We plan to continue with screenings in Lithuania, France, Norway, Estonia, Finland, and Germany.

Brian Bonner: Can any of us here watch it?

Anna Novosad: It was recently on Suspilne (the national public broadcaster in Ukraine—ed.). But we also plan to have another screening in the new academic year, when there will be more attention.

Brian Bonner: It’s not going to be on YouTube?

Anna Novosad: It will be

Current goals

Brian Bonner: Listen, this is a great discussion, and I’ve asked a lot of questions, but maybe I should cede the floor to you for issues that we haven’t talked about. I read that you’re not going to do this forever, SavEd, and so I’m just wondering, to the extent that anybody can plan during a full-scale war, what’s your short-range plan today?

Anna Novosad: My short-range plan is to continue developing the organization. We are quite young, less than two years old, so now is the time to reap the rewards of what we sowed last year. Arranging big bomb shelters, rebuilding schools, and providing catch-up programs takes time. So, basically, we are now in full swing with the realization of new projects.

Our profile is building. We have a lot of work and many partners coming. We will soon start a big project with the legal foundation in Mykolaiv, creating more bomb shelters and essentially underground schools. Institutionalizing SavEd and ensuring safety are the priorities. In a 20-year perspective, we are working internationally. The full-scale invasion taught many Ukrainians how international organizations and NGOs work, often poorly.

We see many cases of a complete lack of professionalism and understanding, cluelessness in helping a particular country with its specific context. You can’t apply the same solutions used in Afghanistan here because they differ from many angles.

Watching how big international players work, those who have been in the field for a long time, makes me think we can do the same with better approaches and solutions that fit the context. Long story short, I see SavEd internationalizing and bringing more subjectivity to Ukrainian organizations in the international forum. I’m fed up with people thinking of us as money beggars.

Brian Bonner: There’s a lot of catching up to do there. That’s unfortunately true, and I realize that every time I step out of this country. I’m in a bubble here, but I think people should know obvious things about Ukraine. But anyway, that’s another story. We’re recording this just before you go to the recovery conference. What do you hope to achieve there? Why are you going?

Anna Novosad: The Berlin recovery conference is more of a networking opportunity for me. I’m always looking for partners because my biggest task is fundraising and engaging partners. It’s not just about hunting for money but also trying to persuade players like the European Commission on what exactly needs to be done in Ukraine to regain access to education. It’s not obvious for people who don’t live or work here. Shaping international assistance is something I do, and I hope that might happen along these lines.


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