Belgorod Postcard: Fear And Sandbags For Russians Going Back To School Near Ukraine Border
It's back to school in the Russian region that has felt the war more than any other. Special measures are taking place, including sandbags and explosion-proof windows. But parents are more anxious than ever.
BELGOROD — Nowhere in Russia has felt the war in Ukraine more acutely than the region of Belgorod. Nearly one out of every three Russian civilians to have died since the beginning of the full-scale invasion is from Belgorod, which borders Ukraine, according to the Russian publication “7x7”. That's an estimated total of more than 50 civilians in the region who've been killed since Feb. 2022.
Despite the ongoing danger, regional authorities have decided not to continue with online learning in educational institutions ahead of the new school year. Independent Russian news site Vazhnyye Istorii (Important Stories) has looked into how students in the border region will face the coming school year, which begins with the constant sound of explosions and classrooms that have been equipped with shatter-proof windows.
September 1 was marked by a number of new installations in Belgorod schools.
Ceremonial assemblies, which are custom on the first day of the academic year and are normally celebratory events that parents attend, were held only for the first and eleventh grades in most schools, and even then, not everyone was permitted entry.
Readers of the “Belgorod No. 1” Telegram channel complained that, in one school, face recognition controls had been set up.The school’s administration, carefully surveyed by employees of the National Guard and the Ministry of Internal Affairs, checked passports against the list of invited schoolchildren at the gates.
Bomb shelters and 'face control'
“How has it happened that I, a parent, am not allowed to attend my own child’s ceremony? — a city resident complained. “Parents always used to come to the school [on the first day of the year], they would take pictures with their children, teachers, classes. There were no fences or locks. And now look: they have built barriers, closed the gates, installed turnstiles blocking. Who do they think we are?"
It feels like prison
Another Belgorod woman complained that it "felt like I was taking my child to prison, not school... You can’t go into the classroom with the children, you can’t even take a picture of your child at their desk.”
Some schools also held cautionary meetings with parents and showed parents and children bomb shelters that would be used in emergencies.
Russia, Belgorod - September 1, 2023: Women raise Russian flags on Knowledge Day as a new academic year starts at primary / nursery school
Almost 50 schools and all 67 kindergartens in the city have returned to full-time in person teaching, the press service of the city mayor’s office reported.
“Another year of distance learning and our children will forget how to read and write,” warned Governor Vyacheslav Gladkov in June, after two teachers from a rural school in the Valuysky city district were hospitalized after being hit by shelling. Schools and universities in Belgorod and in the regions bordering Ukraine were transferred to distanced learning in October 2022.
“Lessons that for some reason were considered not so important, such as computer science and an additional language, were taught to children at all," the mother of a student at one Belgorod school complained to the governor. "Children had to study them themselves using lesson cards without teachers.”
Children returned to in-person teaching in two or three “waves”: the number of children in a wave was calculated based on the capacity of the bomb shelters that the schools had access to at the time. Schools also decided to reduce lesson time by 5–10 minutes in order to avoid large concentrations of children in hallways at any one time.
Some residents, though, had questions about the bomb shelters. “At our school, one of the shelters is in the locker room on the first floor, where there is a huge window - what kind of safety is that? Why don’t they turn the basement into a shelter?” — said one resident of the Valuysky district.
Children aged three to five will be taught the basics of safe behavior on the street and at home, and preschoolers will be taught how to behave during shelling and when explosive devices are detected.
On August 21, the state news agency RIA Novosti reported that before the start of the school year, the windows of the first floors of educational institutions in Belgorod had been covered with sandbags.
“All schools are required to take these security precautions,” the director of the largest school in the region, Education Center No. 1, which regularly comes under fire, explained to the agency.
Who is responsible?
To strengthen the building's defenses against shelling, about 12 truckloads of sand were needed. The height of the protective structure reached several meters. A week later, the cornice of the facade of the school collapsed. The decorative ledge under the first floor windows could not withstand the weight of the bags.
On August 28, Governor Vyacheslav Gladkov reported that more than 65,000 square meters of special armored films were purchased for 50 schools and 70 kindergartens in the region.
The strength of the film was tested by employees of the mayor's office and the National Guard: various shells were dropped from a UAV - from fragmentation grenades to mortar mines. Parents were involved in gluing the windows. “Who is responsible if we make a mistake?” - asks the mother of a Belgorod schoolboy, Tatyana.
August 25, 2023: Sand bags are seen by the windows of a kindergarten.
Belgorod universities are faced with a shortage of students: Belgorod State University for example recruited 400 fewer students than usual, the acting director of the university Evgenia Karlovskaya reported.
Universities were also affected by personnel shortages: 297 employees left BelSU alone in 2022. Fifty teachers associated their departure with an anti-war position: one teacher, Tatyana Novikova, was fired for pacifist comments.
At the beginning of August, BelSU students were told they would return to full in-person teaching.
“Not everyone wants to return to the border city, where the situation is not entirely stable,” one student explained her fears of full-time education on the page of Governor Vyacheslav Gladkov. “Not everyone's parents let them study. No one guarantees that we will not go back to distanced learning after a week of in-person classes. And a lot of money is spent on travel and housing.”
Gladkov himself supported the decision of the university administration : “The decision made by the leadership of the National Research University "BelSU" seems justified to me. Of course, the situation may change, we will make decisions based on the operational situation. Now we are preparing for full-time in-person education not only at universities, but also in schools and kindergartens.”
“We are special armored pupils," said one student. “We will accept the fact that we will have to listen to the sounds of explosions as a melody."
“Yes, I’m afraid of shelling," another confessed. "Yes, I'm afraid of all the regular explosions. Yes, I want to leave."
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