Tallinn fumbling in the dark planning for Ukraine refugees' education

Ukrainian children's paintings of their homeland, displayed in Pärnu.
Ukrainian children's paintings of their homeland, displayed in Pärnu. Source: Press photo

To date, it is still unclear how many refugee children from Ukraine will continue studying in Tallinn schools this fall, however the goal of Tallinn Education Department is to place a maximum of one to two children from Ukraine into each class.

"There are more questions than answers in this plan," said Andres Pajula, director of the Tallinn Education Department. "First of all, how many of these Ukrainians are there all in all? Second, how long are they going to stay here? Third, what do they want, and what obligations do we have in placing them? Many of them are children with special education needs (SEN) — which classes should they be placed in? And actually they've missed out on half a school year. So we're definitely in a very complicated situation."

Until now, the children of families who had fled Ukraine were able to continue their education in Tallinn in a so-called day school format, where children studied among themselves and adapted to their new situation. A total of 51 children from Ukraine were enrolled in the adaptation program at Tallinn Technical High School. Principal Anneli Errit explained that based on the Ukrainian curriculum, they divided up these children into three groups based on grade, so that children of the same age and with similar interests would be grouped together.

"We mainly gave them Estonian language lessons, but we were also able to do art, technology, handicrafts, IT, music, physical education, English, some math — in other words, everything that crosses the language barrier as such," Errit said.

Starting this fall, the children from Ukraine will continue traditional studies just like local children in Estonia. Schools in Tallinn are currently in the process of determining how many of these children will continue attending this fall, as well as mapping out what their own options are for accepting them — including whether to add them to existing classes or to make up new ones.

One to two per class

According to Pajula, Tallinn is planning on distributing the enrollment of children from Ukraine in its schools so that they account for up to 7 percent of a school's pupils at the basic school level — i.e. from 1st through 9th grade inclusive.

"This means that if one class consists of 24 students, then the proportion of Ukrainians would not exceed more than one or two students," he explained. "If classes are full, however, and not accepting students, then schools will certainly offer solutions for forming additional classes."

If a separate class is formed of students from Ukraine, he continued, they will likely attend school in a separate shift.

The Education Department director stressed that schools would definitely not exceed this 7-percent limit, adding that the hope is actually to remain well below that.

"I don't think more than one student [from Ukraine] per class would be good," he said, noting that this figure is research-based and will serve to ensure that local students' studies, which have already been disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, will not be negatively impacted.

Schools themselves are to report to the Education Department regarding how many students and to which classes they can accept for this fall. The city official stressed that nothing is being imposed on them.

"Schools are happy to collaborate, but they want answers," he said. "And it is clear that this process cannot be managed by telling [Tallinn Art High School in Kopli], 'You're taking 9th grade' and then that's it. You need teachers for that, and each school has its own resource of teachers that it has to review. Management is decentralized in Tallinn, and sole discretion in these matters is given at lower levels."

Potential students number in thousands

The Tallinn Education Department is counting on the Ukrainian school opened in Lilleküla, where the goal is to enroll 600 students in grades 1-6 for the upcoming school year. Nonetheless, they are already having trouble finding teachers for this school, as studies there would also be expected to continue according to Estonian curricula starting this fall.

In placing children from Ukraine, the city can also only take Estonian-language schools into consideration, as according to Ministry of Education and Research guidelines, children from Ukraine are not to be enrolled in Russian-language schools.

"There is a significant difference in whether we solve this problem with 57 schools or 30 schools," Pajula acknowledged.

At the same time, it also hasn't been decided exactly how the children will be divided up, as it still remains unclear exactly how many children from Ukraine will be continuing to attend school in Estonia this fall. According to Pajula, the total is fluctuating between 2,000-4,000.

"There is a lot of fluctuation; the data is changing daily," he said. "Throughout this crisis we're facing a lot of uncertainty, and there isn't a single adequate database. This is the biggest problem."

Schools concerned about Estonian language

This spring, 21 children from Ukraine were enrolled in the adaptation program at Tallinn French School, some of whom were already studying together with local children. Principal Peter Pedak said that some of them will continue to attend the school this fall. Based on the 7-percent limit, the French School could accept a maximum of 30 students from Ukraine.

"This suits me as a citizen of the Republic of Estonia first and foremost," Pedak replied when asked whether such a plan would suit him as school principal. "Naturally this will mean a great effort and the reorganization of work in the school, but we have to do this."

He believes that the biggest challenge facing the school will be teaching these children Estonian, and how quickly they can pick up enough of the language to keep up with their classmates. He noted that Estonian language teachers have always been hard to come by, which is why the French School is counting on Estonian language-learning camps being organized this summer for refugees from Ukraine.

"Of course, next school year we'll occasionally have to pull the Ukrainians from their classrooms during class and work with them as a smaller group," Pedak said, adding that this would also be done by their existing teachers, and on top of all their other work.

According to Errit, the principal of Tallinn Technical High School, difficulties in working with the children from Ukraine at their school have first and foremost been emotional in nature.

"A parent came to drop off some documents at the school and immediately broke down crying," she recalled. "This was the emotional release that first a parent had upon arriving at school."

The children themselves were initially quiet and reserved, but later opened up and, according to the principal, were kids just like any others, each with their own joys and worries. A therapy event held at the conclusion of the adaptation program finally revealed what was going on inside these children.

"When they drew their feelings and thoughts, half of them were pictures of inner pain and cries for help, while the other half — on the younger children's part — reflected this joy and brightness that they have experienced here," Errit described. "Evidently, the older the student, the more they understand and are also able to express their emotions."

Answers by August

Asked by what point it should be clear how many children can be enrolled in which schools, the director of Tallinn Education Department said that they had actually hoped this process would have been complete by now.

"Talks with schools are ongoing in seeking the best possible solutions, and data is certain to continue changing throughout this time," Pajula said. "We need to reach agreements with schools this spring so that they know what teachers they should be seeking. Children will then be assigned for the fall in accordance with these agreements. In other words, [the assignment process] should be completed by August."

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Editor: Aili Vahtla

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