DONETSK, Ukraine (AP) — Like most children his age, Denis Akimov spends hours daily on his computer surfing the Internet. It isn’t just for fun.
As schools are forced to limit operations in the conflict-battered eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk, educators are turning to the Web to keep their charges learning.
It is an ingenious solution, even if it is denying pupils of valuable interaction with teachers and their friends.
“It’s not comparable to normal school, because there is no proper atmosphere for studying,” said Akimov, 15, sitting in front of a laptop in the living room of his home. “Very often you get distracted because of all kinds of things, like websites.”
Schools and kindergartens haven’t been spared death and destruction in the last seven months of fighting between government forces and Russian-backed separatists.
In early November, a sports field at a high school in Donetsk was hit by shells, killing two teenagers as they were playing soccer. The warring sides blamed one another and more parents were terrified into reconsidering whether their children could be let out of their sight.
The rebel-held city’s education department says 50 out of the 150 schools in Donetsk have now switched to distance-learning. City authorities estimate about 45 percent of Donetsk’s schoolchildren — around 32,000 students — are now educated this way.
Andrei Udovenko, head of the Donetsk education department, said school closures have happened mainly in the districts most heavily affected by shelling. Four school buildings in Donetsk have been severely damaged. Dozens of others have had milder damage.
Despite the dangers, Udovenko said that students are displaying a formidable eagerness to continue their schooling.
“I have worked as a headmaster for 20 years and I have never seen as much desire to learn among the children as we are seeing now,” he said.
Headmistress Viktoria Koval says her school has been lucky, though windows there were shattered during a shelling attack on Oct. 20.
“It is probably our walls that are saving us,” she said. “We had to evacuate the children very quickly, but we managed to do it very well, so none of the children was injured.”
School No. 5 didn’t include a bomb shelter in its original design, so a former target practice gallery was repurposed to fit that need. Over the summer, it was stocked with water and medicine, and equipped with benches and chairs, just in case the need arose.
Koval says only half the 405 pupils registered at her school are still coming to class.
“Kids happily come to school. What is more, when I meet their parents every day at the entrance, I can see they’re not afraid to leave them,” Koval said. “They know their kids will be in a warm and cozy atmosphere, and that they’ll be provided with help should they need it.”
Despite teachers’ best efforts, schools like Koval’s feel half-abandoned and lack the normal bustle of a building teeming with children.
For those that have difficulty leaving their homes, the Internet is the only option. Under the distance-learning program, teachers send study materials and homework to their pupils by email. Much of the instruction itself is posted on schools-curated websites or done through video tutorials uploaded onto video-sharing sites like YouTube.
Children are expected to pay regular visits to their schools to have their work checked and receive abbreviated classes typically attended by a handful of pupils.
Reliance on study through the Internet has its shortcomings, Akimov explained.
“It is harder with the math lessons, because it is difficult to present the work, as you can’t type (all of) the mathematical symbols,” he said.
Akimov exudes the air of a diligent and hardworking student, but the security situation has kept him from visiting his school for weeks.
“The district where my school is located is under constant shelling, so only three of my classmates are attending, because they live in the neighborhood,” he said.
Shortfalls in the provision of education are also partly down to lack of financing. Funds stopped arriving from the Ukrainian government around two months ago, which means no staff salaries have been paid by the state this scholastic year.
Instead, educators have to rely on what little the rebel government provides.
Koval said that many of her colleagues are continuing to work without pay out of loyalty to their students.
“Our calling is to teach children, to provide them with all the necessary conditions, knowledge and upbringing that I hope will help them in the future,” she said.
The main thing, Koval said, is that the students remain enthusiastic about their education.
“The children are studying, they are sending in their homework. Some of them are even asking for more because it is more important to them than playing silly computer games,” she said.