Wednesday, 19 March 2014 14:20

PSI Manages During Ukraine’s Bumpy Ride

Every school year brings new challenges, but no one expected the political tumult in Ukraine.

Just a short Metro (subway) ride from Kyiv’s city center, Pechersk School International (PSI) students and staff are well aware that they are witnessing an historic moment in the country’s history. The School’s focus has been twofold: Make sure that the school community feels safe and ensure that students can continue their educations. PSI has managed both - with a little help from our friends.

When demonstrations started in November, the School’s Director, John Burns, connected quickly with security officers from the city’s key embassies, including the US and Canada. Daily conversations were enough to confirm that despite the growing number of demonstrators pouring into the downtown area, the city remained safe. In fact, in the early stages of the rallies, the city had an almost festive feel, with families, children and even tourists participating in the events on Maidan (pronounced My-dahn) Square.

Still, PSI administrators and staff developed emergency plans for the school - just in case. These included a communication system for the community that piggybacked on the School’s already existing SMS system and included a broader use of Facebook, email and the PSI website to convey information quickly to all members of the community. Plans were also developed for distance learning.

The School got a ‘trial run’ in early December when the government closed the Metro (subway) system for one day to stem the flow of protesters heading into the city. But the greatest challenges came in February, when protests turned unexpectedly violent in the city. Once again, the government shut down the Metro, and embassy alerts encouraged expatriates to avoid the downtown area. Like everyone else, the PSI community watched with sorrow and concern as the area around Maidan Square became less an area of peaceful protest and more of a battleground.

Because transportation throughout the city was stymied by the Metro closures, PSI shut down for three days, sending daily messages and updates to the school community. In addition, the School launched its Online Learning Program. By mid-morning each day of the closure, every student and parent had received a grade level email outlining work for the day. Students submitted work mostly through Google Docs, but also uploaded work to already existing teacher and departmental websites and by email. A Google survey at the end of the week confirmed that students were comfortable with both the quantity of work and its connection to what they had been learning in school that week.

Fortunately, the closure backed up against the February break, giving everyone a much-needed “breather.” Unfortunately, the US and Canadian Embassies instituted a voluntary relocation for embassy families. The guidelines were clear. This was not an evacuation of families or a closure of the embassies themselves. Non-essential staff, spouses and children could voluntarily leave Kyiv, with the understanding that they could not go back and forth. If they left the city, they would need to stay out of Ukraine until they received an “all clear” from their embassy. If they stayed in the city, they would not be able to leave Ukraine and then come back in. Approximately half of the School’s Embassy families (about 20 students) opted to relocate temporarily to Warsaw, Poland.

And that’s when PSI learned the real power of the CEESA network. Working with the American Embassies in both cities, the American School Warsaw opened its doors to PSI students. Under the leadership of ASW’s Director Terry Gamble, the school organized a daily bus run, provided classroom space, opened up the library for student use, and even scrounged up textbooks for one of PSI’s IB Diploma students. They made it clear that the welcome was open-ended; discussions began about the possibility of DP students taking exams there in May if problems in Ukraine persisted.

In the meantime, Ukraine was continuing its wild ride. In the space of two weeks, the country saw an EU-brokered deal for internal elections fall through, the president flee the country in the middle of the night, the election of a new interim government, the establishment of an election date in a mere three months, and the steep escalation of tensions in Crimea, where Russia began a stealthy - and then overt - establishment of troops.

As students returned from the February break, PSI teachers and administrators looked for ways to acknowledge and help students deal with the rapid change in the country. Primary teachers held classroom discussions as questions arose, but mostly focused on helping students return to “business as usual.” At the Secondary level, the counselor and administrators spent the first day back meeting with all students in classes to talk about events in Ukraine and the impact they were having on the lives of our students.

We were surprised and moved by two things. First, students from Grades 6 - 12 were incredibly well informed about what was happening in Ukraine. Many students spoke about following the news in multiple languages and examining how Russian, Ukrainian, and Western news media were covering events. Second, students demonstrated a high degree of concern for each other. They worried about the host national families who were involved on both sides of the clashes. And - of course - they worried about their absent friends.

On that point, we were able to reassure them. Online learning continued with those students in Warsaw as well as many local families who remained concerned about safety. In addition, PSI added a new layer to our distance education. With the help of a diligent and skilled IT staff, many teachers learned to use Google Hangouts, which allowed students out of school to join their classes in real time, participate in classroom discussions and work on group projects. Those resources, combined with the support system from Warsaw, ensured that most of our students were able to keep up with their learning and stay connected to their friends back home.

By the end of the week, some local families had opted to return. The School was also pleased to learn that the US and Canadian Embassies had lifted the travel restrictions and that students in Warsaw would return the following week. PSI was able to send middle school and high school basketball teams to CEESA tournaments in Skopje and Riga. Life was returning to normal - at least for the moment.

The bumpy ride in Ukraine isn’t over yet, of course. Tensions in Crimea remain high. Kyiv protests have remained peaceful, but the area around Maidan Square is still marked by barricades, even while the rest of the city goes on as always. May elections are bound to be contentious.

But Pechersk School is ready to continue its work with its community to ensure the safety of its students and the focus on continuing learning. With the help of friends like American School Warsaw and the CEESA network, we feel confident that we can do just that.

Patricia Puia
Secondary Principal

First Day at ASW: PSI students gathered at American School Warsaw on their first day of distance learning.
Photo by PSI student Cassidy Chang

Welcome at ASW: ASW staff welcomed PSI students to their ‘home away from home.’
Photo by PSI student Cassidy Chang

Google Hangouts: PSI Maths class included students in Warsaw through Google Hangouts
Photo by PSI IT Technician Sergi Moiseenko