Two teachers greeted them with smiles at the steel door, and then mother and daughter walked down the concrete stairs, holding each other’s hand, through yet another security door and into the den for the first day of school.

Hundreds of children started classes this week in the first purpose-built shelter school, 6 meters below the surface of the earth to protect them from Russian drone and missile attacks.

This particular primary school in Kharkiv is accessed through a door in a small, white, concrete vestibule on the sidewalk. At the end of the stairs a corridor leads to the classrooms. There are no windows, but the rooms are well lit and the walls in the corridors are painted white and light green.

Ukraine’s second-largest city, located in the north-east of the country near the Russian border, has been under relentless Russian attacks since Moscow’s invasion of its bastions was halted 26 months ago. In recent weeks, hostilities have drawn closer and airstrikes have become more frequent as a Russian offensive in surrounding areas has driven Ukrainian troops into retreat.


In these days of war, most children in Kharkiv spend most of their schooling at home on a computer. Masha, 9, and her brother Oleksy, 6, were very happy for the opportunity to learn in a real classroom with a real teacher, living with other children.

“My daughter, in the third grade, couldn’t wait to come, to dress up, to meet her friends that she missed so much,” said the children’s mother Marina Prikodko. “For my son, who is a first-year, it’s like a day of celebration, a chance to meet his classmates in real life, not online.”

The latest escalation in conflict? “Yes, it’s very scary,” he declared. “But whatever happens, life goes on and we have to try to live here and now, every day.”

The new school initially enrolled 300 students, but Kharkiv Mayor Ihor Terekhov said this would be expanded to two daily shifts of 450 students each.


“We have to make sure that the teachers and students adapt to the school and we hope that from September 1 there will be all the students,” he said.

At the opening of the school yesterday, many students wore traditional Ukrainian embroidered “vyshyvanky” blouses for the occasion. Children of all ages filled the hallways and sat at their desks in spacious, windowless rooms. Their lunch was burgers and juice.


“It’s night and day,” said principal Ihor Voznyi, comparing the new school to what students faced before. “Our schools do not have bomb shelters. There are underground spaces that are completely unsuitable for teaching. The spaces here have been designed to offer quality, modern rooms.”