The first day of September should have been a momentous occasion for the children and teachers of Primorsk in Ukraine's Zaporizhzhya region.
The date -- the traditional start of the new academic year in former Soviet nations -- is usually marked with cheerful fanfare: boys and girls dressed in their nicest clothing and accompanied by parents to greet their teachers with flowers.
But this year was different for most of them.
With Primorsk under Russian control as Moscow pushes ahead with its military invasion of Ukraine, only half of the dozen local elementary schools opened their doors on September 1.
Many teachers and families in Primorsk have fled the Russian occupation, while others have refused to cooperate with the Moscow-imposed authorities despite threats, pressure, and bribes.
It is a phenomenon across the occupied territories.
As a result, Moscow is struggling to implement its program for Ukrainian children and teachers in these regions, an objective that experts say is necessary if it has any hope of consummating their incorporation into Russia.
The apparent failure to hijack the education system was evident in the list of teachers working at one of the functioning schools in Primorsk. It included a man who had been running a moonshine business for the past few years and a local priest whom locals remember as having been a poor student himself.
In the Russian-occupied city of Melitopol in the Zaporizhzhya region, Halina Danilchenko, the Moscow-appointed occupation administrator, admitted she hadn't found enough teachers, especially of history, for the 21 schools she planned to relaunch this year.
Such setbacks were occurring even though Russia has been resorting to tough measures to fill vacancies. Several school directors and teachers in the occupied regions have been detained or threatened in an attempt to force them to collaborate.
On Kremlin-controlled television, which is broadcast in the occupied regions, a Russian "expert" said Ukrainian teachers who refused to cooperate with the Moscow-installed authorities should be sent to labor camps for reeducation.
Viktoria Zibrova, a history teacher in Berestove in the Zaporizhzhya region, told RFE/RL that the pro-Russian authorities regularly harassed the director of the school in the neighboring village, even bursting into her home at one point.
They "wanted to frighten her because September [was] approaching, and they can't find teachers," Zibrova said.
Zibrova said she and most of the other teachers in Berestove fled after Russian authorities warned them not to speak Ukrainian at school.
Some could not leave for personal reasons, such as the need to care for elderly parents, she said. Ukraine continues to pay teachers two-thirds of their salaries so they aren't forced to cooperate out of economic necessity.
Some Ukrainian teachers who agreed or were forced to cooperate with the authorities were taken to Russia for so-called advanced training courses.
The training included not just an introduction to Russia's patriotism-infused school curriculum, but also political indoctrination.
The Russian authorities are resorting to other measures to fill the growing void of educators. They have been preventing teachers from crossing into Kyiv-controlled territory and hiring retired teachers or local residents without teaching qualifications.
Moscow has also offered incentives to Russian teachers to get them to relocate and work in the occupied territories.
Moscow is offering to pay Russian teachers an additional 7,000 to 8,500 rubles ($115-$140) a day, or more than 140,000 rubles ($2,300) a month, to work in the occupied territories.
Such a salary is high by Russian standards outside the main cities of Moscow and St. Petersburg. Average salaries for teachers in Russia in 2021 were about 43,000 rubles ($710) a month.
Russian government officials have claimed about 600 teachers have agreed to work in pro-Russian schools in the occupied regions.
Serhiy Horbachev, Ukraine’s ombudsman for education, told Current Time that Russian teachers will be viewed by local residents as part of the occupation force and treated as such, implying they could be targeted for violence.
Payments Or Bribes?
There are between 100,000 and 120,000 Ukrainian children in the occupied regions, according to the government in Kyiv.
Shortly before the academic year began, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced his government would pay a one-time lump sum of 10,000 rubles ($165) to all families in the occupied regions who enroll their children in the Moscow-controlled schools, where the new curriculum denies the existence of a Ukrainian history and culture separate from that of Russia.
However, many Ukrainian families are forgoing the sum rather than subject their children to Kremlin indoctrination, several parents told RFE/RL on condition of anonymity.
Ukrainian children who attend school in the occupied regions are being taught that they are Russians and their region will soon become part of Russia.
They will also be subjected to a weekly lecture titled "Important Conversations" that will promote the Kremlin's false narratives about the war in Ukraine and about the cultures and histories of the two nations.
Russia’s goal "is to destroy Ukrainian culture and Ukrainian education in the region, and completely rewrite history," Yuriy Sobolevskiy, a top official on the Kherson Regional Council, told RFE/RL.
Those Ukrainian families who cannot flee are choosing to educate their children through online courses offered by Ukrainian schools. Others are schooling their children at home.
Halina, a resident of Russia-controlled Kherson who asked her full name not be used for fear of retaliation against her family, told RFE/RL she recently escaped to Kyiv-controlled territory with her school-age son in part to avoid sending him to a Russian-controlled school.
Her sister, who remained behind in Kherson, will care for their elderly parents while schooling her own two children at home, Halina said. Online education in Kherson is difficult because of disrupted Internet connections, she said.
Some institutions of higher education in the occupied regions, such as the so-called Kherson Medical College, are offering free tuition and scholarships to attract Ukrainian students.
However, diplomas from institutions in the Kremlin-controlled regions are not recognized outside those regions and Russia.
If such incentives are not sufficient, the occupation authorities are also wielding bribes and threats.
In Melitopol, where four vocational schools were combined into one due to a lack of students and teachers, the Russian authorities have allegedly warned that young men who refuse to attend classes will be drafted, said Kyiv-recognized Mayor Ivan Fedorov.
Rumors have circulated in some occupied regions that parents could lose custody of their children if they do not send them to school or face fines, prompting some parents to acquiesce.
The Kremlin has been trying to put a positive spin on the situation for audiences back in Russia. Kremlin-friendly media have reported extensively on the rebuilding and reopening of schools that had been destroyed as a result of Moscow's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine in February.
Ukrainian parents and educators say the images of happy Ukrainian children entering functioning schools belies the reality. In some locations, children don't have books, they said. The Russia-installed authorities have destroyed Ukrainian-language textbooks, but Russian-language replacements have yet to arrive.
And even where there are books, not all teachers are familiar with the new Russia-enforced curriculum.
One resident of Melitopol told RFE/RL the school her child had previously attended had only four teachers and one of them teaches nearly every subject.
Making matters worse, Russian National Guard troops patrol school buildings, and parents are not always allowed inside.
Oleksandr Spivakovskiy, the rector of Kherson State University, described the schools as a "Potemkin village," an empty facade meant to deceive Russian citizens.
He told RFE/RL the Kremlin needs to demonstrate its success in the war and is feeding its citizens images of schools being repaired and of teachers instructing students in the new Russian curriculum when the reality is that Ukrainian locals have largely turned their backs on the occupation authorities' schools.
"But to a citizen of Russia, it looks good," he said.