The final day of classes in Ukraine is normally a festive occasion when gleeful students get dressed up and jump into fountains — and as tradition dictates, the smallest student climbs onto the shoulders of the tallest to ring a bell marking the school year’s end.
This year, in the throes of a devastating war that has forced millions of children from their homes and reduced schoolhouses to rubble, many schools made do on Friday by holding virtual “last bell” ceremonies online, with some of the children signing on from overseas where their families have fled to escape the violence.
Near the front lines of the war in the country’s east, a local official lamented that instead of the bell, children were hearing gunfire and explosions.
“The last bell did not ring today in Luhansk region,” Serhiy Hadai, the head of the region’s military administration, wrote on his Facebook page. “Those children who still remain in the area’s bomb shelters listened to the cannonade.”
In Luhansk, which is on the verge of being taken over by Russian troops as the city of Sievierodonetsk makes its last stand, schools have been reduced to “empty brick boxes” with wind whistling through shattered windows and desks scorched down to their metal frames, he wrote.
In three months of war, parents and teachers have been scrambling to provide education for Ukraine’s 5.5 million school-aged children through a patchwork of online and in-person instruction and even makeshift classrooms in subway stations, where civilians have been sheltering from Russian shelling.
Any semblance of continued schooling can be helpful to provide children with some stability and to give them a safe space to process trauma, experts say.
Ukraine’s education ministry said that some students would have their classes continue into June because the war had interrupted their instruction.
“Despite the war, the last bell will ring,” the education minister, Serhiy Shkarlet, told students in a speech on Friday. “But it will not be heard by those children and teachers who were killed by the Russian occupiers. We will always remember you.”
The United Nations has confirmed the deaths of 261 children in Ukraine since Russia’s invasion but warned that the true toll is likely far higher.
One school in a small town in western Ukraine wrote on its Facebook page that students had tuned into a tearful online ceremony on Friday from Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Poland, Portugal and Spain.
The United Nation’s Children’s Fund also livestreamed a last-bell ceremony for the country’s children, featuring a pop-star-turned-soldier, a professor who has continued teaching from the battlefield and the frontman of the band Kalush Orchestra, the winner of this year’s Eurovision Song Contest.
The agency has previously said that two-thirds of Ukraine’s children have been displaced from their homes by the war.
“The war has changed the daily lives of our children,” Antonina Ulyakhin, a regional politician in Dnipropetrovsk, wrote in a post marking the final day of school. “Many children were forced into adulthood early.”