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Polish schools expect as many Ukrainian refugees as there are students in Los Angeles

Children who fled the war in Ukraine take part in a primary school class with Polish students in Krakow. (Omar Marques/Getty Images)
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WARSAW — Olga Dudar said it took three tries to find a Polish school for her 10-year-old son. They started by walking around the Warsaw neighborhood where they’re staying, looking for schools with blue-and-yellow flags and ribbons — any sign of support and welcome for Ukrainian refugees like them.

At the first school they wandered into, the principal seemed harsh — Dudar, 40, worried the school wouldn’t be able to accommodate a boy who had just fled his home and entire life in Lutsk, Ukraine. The second school determined that since the 10-year-old knew only limited Polish, the best approach would be to hold him back a grade. After a frustrating day in fourth grade again, they restarted their search.

At the third school, the boy said he finally felt accepted. It helped that there was another Ukrainian in his class, who had been in Poland for a while. Another was expected to join soon. More are likely to follow.

Three weeks into the largest refugee flight in Europe since World War II, more than 75,000 new students have registered in the Polish education system. Warsaw has taken in more than 9,000 students from Ukraine, increasing by 1,000 a day. More than 3,200 students have enrolled in Krakow — the equivalent of adding six additional school buildings.

Refugee arrivals from Ukraine since Feb. 24

Belarus

Russia

3K

Poland

185K

2.1M

UKRAINE

Slovakia

246K

3.3M+ refugees

Hungary

306K

Romania

Moldova

527K

363K

CRIMEA

Black Sea

As of 1:00 p.m. Eastern March 20

Source: United Nations High Commissioner

for Refugees (UNHCR)

Note: Country totals may include people crossing the border

between countries, so their sum is greater than the total

number of refugees fleeing Ukraine.

Refugee arrivals from Ukraine since Feb. 24

Belarus

Poland

Russia

3K

2.1M

185K

UKRAINE

Slovakia

3.3M+ refugees

246K

Hungary

306K

Romania

527K

Moldova

363K

CRIMEA

Black Sea

As of 1:00 p.m. Eastern March 20

Source: United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)

Note: Country totals may include people crossing the border between countries, so their sum is greater than the total

number of refugees fleeing Ukraine.

With the greatest portion of Ukrainian refugees landing in Poland, Education and Science Minister Przemyslaw Czarnek projected on Friday that the overall number could grow to 700,000 students from Ukraine applying to Polish schools.

“The Polish educational system is not prepared for this,” said Jacek Kucharczyk, president of the Institute of Public Affairs, a think tank in Warsaw.

Poland is known for having some of the best schools in the world, ranking above the United States and most of Europe on PISA standardized test scores in reading, math and science. And despite its opposition to previous refugee waves, the country has so far given a warm reception to Ukrainians fleeing the war.

But the challenge of absorbing such a huge influx of new students — equivalent to the whole Los Angeles school district — is extraordinary. And it’s further complicated by language barriers and the upheaval these new students have experienced.

Poland is not sure how it will accommodate the new arrivals. It was already facing a teacher-and-classroom shortage. And that sets up the potential for schools to become a point of backlash in the months ahead.

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“Our minister, Czarnek, is a religious fundamentalist and nationalist,” Kucharczyk said. “He’s the worst person to run this school system in a time of this crisis, refusing to speak with NGOs.”

“He wants to dump the refugee children on the school system and see how they cope,” Kucharczyk continued. “It makes me very worried that the education minister then might blame the refugees when school systems fail, instead of the government for lack of action.”

The European Union has offered up to three years of “temporary protection” for Ukrainian nationals, including the right to work and access public services. Polish President Andrzej Duda signed a law that starts to lay out a plan. It enables Ukrainian teachers who know Polish to work as teaching assistants, reduces the registration paperwork for families and allows the creation of bilingual classes in Polish and Ukrainian.

The government has allocated additional money to support schools, including $42 million for “psychological and pedagogical assistance.”

The Ministry of Education and Science has also issued guidance for Ukrainian parents and children on how to enroll and for educators on how to teach child refugees fleeing war. “Teachers … should remember not to arouse unnecessary fear, and to let children and young people talk about their emotions,” Anna Ostrowska, a spokeswoman for the ministry, said in a statement.

Meanwhile, Czarnek, the education minister, has suggested that education for the refugees should be set up “in such a way as to disrupt the Polish education system as little as possible.”

Local officials say the national government is leaving it up to them to figure it all out. And they’re not sure how they’ll manage.

“It’s impossible for me to say how many kids I can accept to school,” Warsaw Mayor Rafal Trzaskowski said in an interview with The Washington Post. “Reality will show many more. But if you stretch a class from 20 to 25, that’s acceptable. If you do 30, then it’s tougher. When you do 35, then, of course, the standard of education goes down.”

While the mayor praised the “tremendous kindness” Warsaw residents have shown toward Ukrainians, he acknowledged concern that sentiments might sour if classes balloon and Polish parents see their children’s education suffer.

He called for more support from the central government. The Ministry of Education and Science did not respond to questions from The Post about what more it could do to help local communities.

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Some Warsaw schools have begun setting up makeshift classrooms in common spaces and asking teachers to give up their breaks and planning periods to take on additional groups of students.

Even before the war, Poland had a shortage of rooms and teachers. Local outlets reported 13,000 teaching staff openings at the beginning of the school year — more than three times the typical level of vacancies. Some students have been attending classes only in the morning or afternoon for lack of space and staff.

As elsewhere around the world, some teachers in Poland quit because they were exhausted by the pandemic. But in interviews, local officials, teachers, experts and activists also blamed national government policies.

Teachers here are often paid minimum wage, and the ruling Law and Justice party has been unreceptive to their calls for higher pay. When teachers went on strike in 2019, the president’s chief of staff suggested they should have more children to get more state benefits.

Teachers have also been leaving the profession because of the climate the government has promoted in schools.

“There is a deep crisis in this group, and it is the consequence of government policy and economic status,” said Urszula Majcher-Legawiec, who trains teachers how to work with kids from immigrant families in Krakow.

Czarnek, named as education minister in October 2020, is a conservative who has spoken out against LGBT rights and women pursuing careers before family. He has opposed historical and artistic recognition of Jews killed in Poland during World War II and of the massacre of Ukrainian civilians by the Polish Home Army in the 1940s. And he has promoted education as a means to “save Latin and Christian civilization,” which he sees as under attack by a “dictatorship of left-liberal views.”

Duda this month vetoed a bill championed by Czarnek that would have given government-appointed supervisors authority over schools, with the aim to “protect children from moral corruption.” But while that effort failed, the government has successfully pushed through a reorganization of schools and introduced a new curriculum.

“The Polish educational system has been under terrible strain before this crisis started, because of the reforms our populist government had been implementing,” Kucharczyk said.

Majcher-Legawiec said she worries that as the challenge of adding over a half-million students progresses and falls on the shoulders of overworked teachers, warm attitudes could shift, and the needs of the students could be left behind.

More than 3 million people have been forced to flee Ukraine; more than half are children. Their parents are trying to explain the war to them. (Video: Zoeann Murphy/The Washington Post)

About 90 percent of the newly enrolled students have been integrated into regular classes in Polish schools, according to the Education Ministry, while about 10 percent are in separate “preparatory” classes, with more focus on learning Polish and about Poland.

Weronika Shviets, a 6-year-old from Kryvyi Rih in central Ukraine, was waiting in line with her mom for social security benefits on a school day this past week. She said she had been too scared to start school — she worried other kids wouldn’t accept her because she doesn’t know Polish.

Other students have questioned the need to learn Polish. Informal surveys suggest the vast majority hope to return to Ukraine soon.

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Aleksandra Machura, a psychologist at Warsaw’s 45th Traugutt High School, said she has tried to frame learning Polish not as a commitment to stay forever but as something students could bring back as they help their communities rebuild. She said having some separate classes can give students time to both learn the language and process their experience without being judged.

One day this week, she asked teenagers sitting at wooden tables in a school common space if they would share their hobbies. Kateryna Bilyk, a teacher originally from Kharkiv, Ukraine, translated the prompt.

Signs of support for Ukraine were all around them. Blue and yellow ribbons hung on every door. A billboard of solidarity displayed a defiant 19th-century Ukrainian poem. Pictures of tanks inside a circle with a line through them hung on walls.

But soon there was a quiet buzz around the room, as the students got to know one another — not as refugees, but as fellow teenagers.

“They just need to be safe,” Bilyk said later. “That’s the best thing we can do for these students right now. Just be there for them, and let them know they are safe.”

Julia Alekseeva contributed to this report.

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