Should the Ministry of the Interior's forecast prove accurate and the number of war refugees from Ukraine to end up in Estonia double, the country's schools won't have the capacity to accept twice as many schoolchildren.
According to Ministry of Education and Research figures, nearly 17,000 refugees from Ukraine under the age of 19 have remained in Estonia. Registered in the Estonian Education Information System (EHIS) are 7,900 of them, 52 percent of whom in turn are enrolled in school in Tallinn.
Spots in Tallinn schools meant for children from Ukraine are essentially full, said ministry undersecretary Liina Põld.
"There are a few spots to offer them in Nõmme and Mustamäe, and there are more spots in grades 1-6, but there are none left at all in 7th through 9th grade," Põld said. "Of course, there's always the option of us establishing separate Ukrainian classes in schools, but we can't accept as many more students as we already have."
The situation isn't as difficult in schools in other cities; schools in Tartu, Pärnu, Narva and Kohtla-Järve, for example, all still have more spots available.
The Education Ministry's primary objective is to get arriving school-aged refugees placed in Estonian schools. Should so many arrive, however, that schools can no longer manage to accept them all, the next plan will be to bring back the so-called adaptation program established shortly after Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February and which ran through September.
"Local governments where children have ended up are offering a sort of all-day school or all-day [kindergarten] group-type opportunity so that the kids have somewhere to be," the undersecretary explained. "They can participate in Ukrainian schools' distance learning there, and if needed get help either from our people or we can hire Ukrainians there as well."
Children would remain in adaptation programs until their families decide to either return to Ukraine or move on somewhere else. This plan doesn't affect Ukrainian children already enrolled and studying in Estonian schools.
Not enough teachers
The main reason Estonia's schools lack the capacity to accept greater numbers of children from Ukraine is the shortage of both teachers and support specialists. "We can't take it as, if the square meters exist at a school, then there are spots [for students]," Põld stressed.
A suitable space is, however, enough for hosting a full-day program, whether in a cultural center or some other local government-owned establishment. As an added bonus, children there don't necessarily have to be instructed or helped by a specialist with an education degree.
While Põld noted at a meeting of the Riigikogu State Budget Control Select Committee last week that schools will have to transition to studies in multiple shifts if the number of refugees continues to grow, the Ministry of Education is nonetheless not currently considering this option, citing, once again, the lack of sufficient numbers of teachers.
Põld believes Estonia should first consider directing refugees, at the national level, out of the capital.
"Right now, it's totally up to the refugees; they're looking for themselves where they'll go," she explained. "They're finding work, becoming self-reliant, earning their own income in order to break out of the role of someone in need. And that's why they've ended up concentrated in Tallinn, because that's where the most jobs are available."
She believes the primary goal of people arriving temporarily in Estonia should be to get their child in school, not for the adults to find work. In this case, the state could disperse refugees across Estonia, based on the availability of education services.
Going forward, when refugees from Ukraine arrive in Estonia that definitely want to enroll their children in local schools, it will be possible to place the kids — just not in Tallinn.
"We simply can't allow it to happen that suddenly there are 45 children in one class, for example," the ministry official said. "That isn't considerate of the teacher, that doesn't help [the refugee kids] adjust to the other children or guarantee any sort of quality education. The rest of Estonia isn't as overcrowded, so we should perhaps be having a central discussion together with the Ministry of the Interior, the Ministry of Social Affairs and the Social Insurance Board (SKA) regarding whether it's possible to direct bigger groups of war refugees outside of Tallinn."
Parents unwilling to give up Ukrainian education
Some 1,200 school-aged children aren't on record in a single local government's registry or enrolled in a school, according to Ministry of Education figures. To officials' knowledge, these children are studying via Ukrainian distance learning at home. Some Ukrainians themselves have noted that it was said back home at some point that Ukraine's school system wouldn't recognize an education earned in any other country, which means that giving up Ukrainian distance learning would mean that their children would have to eventually pick up school where they left off when fleeing the war.
According to Põld, however, that isn't true.
"We've also shared via our social media channels that the Ukrainian minister confirmed that when children go back, they won't be a year or two behind; they can continue their studies," she explained. "That brought more children to our schools; parents agreed to allow their children to study under the Estonian curriculum."
Some parents, however, are still afraid to the point that their children attend Estonian school by day, but then after school take part in Ukrainian online distance learning as well.
"Schools have been signaling to us too that the kids are exhausted and can't keep up in two systems," the undersecretary acknowledged.
The Ministry of Education doesn't support such a study method and is encouraging children to participate in only the Estonian education system.
"Our curricula are relatively similar; we don't have very significant differences in terms of general competences, central themes or subject areas, and study volumes are more or less the same as well," Põld confirmed.
The Ministry of Education and Research meets with Tallinn Education Department weekly to discuss the city's Ukrainian students. Regular meetings are likewise held with SKA and other ministries as well.
Editor: Aili Vahtla