Ukraine opens first underground school to shield children from airstrikes in war-torn Kharkiv

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  • Ukraine’s first bunker school, located 20 feet below ground, began classes this week with hundreds of children attending.
  • The school aims to shield students from Russian drone and missile attacks.
  • Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city near the Russian border, faces relentless attacks, prompting most children to learn from home.

Two teachers met them with a smile at the steel door, and down the concrete staircase the mother and daughter clattered, hand in hand, through another blast door and into the bunker for the first day of school.

Hundreds of children began lessons this week in Ukraine’s first purpose-built bunker school, 20 feet below the ground to protect them from Russian drone and missile attacks.

Kharkiv’s primary school 155 is reached through a door in a small white concrete box on the pavement. At the bottom of the stairs classrooms branch off a corridor. There are are no windows, but the rooms are brightly lit and the hallways painted in white and lime green.

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Ukraine’s second-biggest city, located in the country’s northeast near the Russian border, has been under relentless Russian attack since Moscow’s invasion was halted at its ramparts 26 months ago. In recent weeks the fighting has grown closer and the airstrikes more constant as a Russian offensive in the surrounding countryside pushed Ukrainian troops back.

In these days of war, most children in Kharkiv do most of their learning at home on a computer. Masha, 9, and her brother Oleksii, 6, were giddy over the chance to go to a real class with a real live teacher, in person with other kids.

“My daughter, a third grader, could hardly wait to come, dress up for the occasion, meet her friends that she missed very much,” said their mother, Marina Prikhodko. “For my son, a first grader, it’s like a festive day, a chance to meet his classmates in real life, not online.”

The latest upsurge in fighting? “Yes, it is scary,” she said. “But whatever happens, life goes on and we have to try and live here and now, every day.”

The new school has an initial enrollment of 300 pupils, but Kharkiv Mayor Ihor Terekhov said that would expand to two daily shifts of 450 each.

“We need to make sure that both teachers and students get accustomed to the school and hopefully from Sept. 1 there will be full complement of students,” he said.

At the school’s opening on Monday, many pupils wore traditional Ukrainian embroidered shirts, or “vyshyvanky”, to celebrate. Children of all ages mingled in hallways and sat behind desks in spacious, windowless classrooms. Lunch was burgers and boxes of juice.

“It’s like day and night,” said headmaster Ihor Voznyi, comparing the new school with what pupils had to deal with before.

“Our schools do not have bomb shelters. There are basements, underground spaces which are totally unsuited to conduct any teaching. The spaces here are designed to provide quality, modern spaces.”

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