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Why hundreds of children die in Russian schools every year

  • 28 Jan 2022

The latest incident of a school boy's death has once again sparked a debate about the taxing workload students have to carry in Russian schools.

Children disinfect their hands before having a meal at a school in Moscow, Russia, Monday, Sept. 7, 2020. ( Pavel Golovkin / AP )

On January 19, a 16-year-old student collapsed after running two laps during a warm-up session at the school gym in the city of Kopeisk, in Russia’s Chelyabinsk region. Three doctors, who were present at the school at the time, tried to revive him without success. 

“Three times, we thought everything was fine. Three times we said: ‘Thank God, thank God’. But, unfortunately, no. He began to breathe on his own for just a few seconds, and then again his breath disappeared [and] his heart would not start,” Lyudmila Erdakova, the acting director of the institution, later told NTV. 

The boy did not survive, even though the school had access to all of the available medical facilities to deal with such emergencies. Erdakova said that a medical examination last year had found that the teenager had no existing health issues. His mother also said that her son was healthy—with no heart problems or other illnesses. 

An official probe has been ordered to ascertain the cause of his death. 

On the same day, a first grade student was left with first-degree frostbite on both of his hands after he was made to stand outside for 40 minutes—in the height of the Russian winter—during a physical education class in the village of Sadovoye, near Yekaterinburg. 

The student had forgotten his mittens but the instructors apparently didn’t see anything amiss. While the whole class was skiing, “he was playing,” the PE teacher said.

These two random incidents have put the spotlight back on one of Russia’s biggest public issues—the injury to and death of scores of students during physical education classes every year. 

Officials and teachers blame privacy laws that prevent schools’ managements from knowing about students' health conditions. Parents, in turn, blame the alleged indifference of teachers and delayed or poor-quality medical care for the tragic incidents. 

The Sadovoye incident, like other such cases, sparked a blame-game between parents and the school authorities. The boy’s mother was quoted by the mass circulated daily “Moskovsky Komsomolets”, as saying that her son Grisha (name changed) came home crying with his hands swollen, purple and covered in red spots.

Even as the prosecutor's office launched an investigation into the incident, the boy’s class teacher, identified only as M.K.,said that she only learnt about his injuries from social media posts and not his parents.  School principal Galina Gorodetskaya defended the physical education teacher as “capable”.

"The teacher should have known that!"

In a highly-publicised case in 2016, a 10-year-old student, Katya, was allegedly made to sit after suffering spinal injuries during a physical education class in Yekaterinburg.

Katya’s grandmother Svetlana Glinskikh, wrote an angry letter to “Rossiyskaya Gazeta”, a state-owned newspaper, to narrate the sequence of events.

“Katya fell, [then] began to choke from severe back pain. But the physical education teacher only came after Katya’s classmates called him. He picked Katya up, took her to an empty classroom, and sat her on a chair. And with symptoms of a spinal injury, it is strictly forbidden to sit. [He needed] to put the child on her back. And he, the teacher, should have known that!”

According to Svetlana, her granddaughter waited for more than an hour and a half for proper medical care. Doctors at the hospital diagnosed her with a “compression fracture of the spine in three places”. The girl was bed-ridden for weeks and then underwent a long rehabilitation in order to return to normal life.

But instead of an apology, the schoolgirl's parents and grandmother were allegedly accused by the school principal and teachers of not caring for the child properly.  

The “Rossiyskaya Gazeta” noted that this incident was a “carbon copy” of past incidents.

Special Risk Lesson

Over the past decade, many students have either been injured or died in Russian schools. But official data from earlier periods is difficult to find. In 2016, it was revealed in an official report that at least 211 students had died in physical education classes. And most of these deaths were attributed to chronic diseases, not accidents.

According to the report submitted by Olga Vasilyeva, the then Minister of Education and Science of the Russian Federation, in all of the cases, neither the teachers nor the coaches knew about the real state of the children's health, and therefore could not provide them with effective assistance. 

Vasilyeva also said that, in general, the tragic situation is due to the protection of personal data - in educational institutions, there are no medical records of students or access to them. Because of this, teachers do not know whether a child is sick, and are therefore unaware of what could be a threat to his or her life. 

However, in many cases, serious illnesses in schoolchildren were discovered only after their death. This is because students are not subjected to regular health check-ups, according to Evgeny Timakov, the chief physician at the Moscow  Medical Centre. 

He said that medical centres and schools do not coordinate on students’ health issues. He also states that “[the] nurses and doctors who used to conduct medical examinations of students were removed from schools,” adding that, “this reduced the budget, but left children without supervision". 

According to journalist Emil Aliyev, who has extensively studied deaths in educational institutions, none of the children are insured against accidents, and they can happen not only in the gym, but also in geography, literature or mathematics lessons. However, “more often than not, the very subject that should strengthen the health of the child, becomes disastrous for [them],” Aliyev said. 

"She's on drugs"

A 2017 study by scientists at the Samara State Technical University, titled "Problems of sudden deaths of schoolchildren and students during physical education and sports”, there are two main causes of such deaths: heart disease and injuries received in the classroom.

The report said that "heart" cases are more common, and that they are divided into two types. The first is a concussion, which is a sudden disruption to the heart rate due to a blow to the chest, such as a fall or a hit by a ball. The second is sudden damage to the myocardium (the main heart muscle) due to already existing heart problems, even if they were not previously identified.

In March 2020, a 14-year-old from Tyumen suffered a stroke during dance training and fell into a coma. The teenager stopped feeling her right hand and could not speak to the teacher. However, assistance was provided in a timely and professional manner.

But, at the end of December, a similar story in Bratsk, in the Irkutsk region, ended in a tragedy. A 14-year-old schoolgirl also died of a stroke after being in a coma for half a month.

The mother of the deceased said that the cause of death was the late arrival of the ambulance and the absence of a neurosurgeon in the city’s children's hospital, which is why the craniotomy was performed only a day later. 

At the time, the ambulance dispatcher refused to accept the call for a long time, commenting on the symptoms listed by the mother: “She is pregnant or under drugs.”

Officials said that what happened to the girl was “a rare case in medicine”, but insisted that the first available ambulance was sent, and that “experts from Irkutsk [then] monitored the girl’s condition.”

"Children are under pressure"

A few years ago, the Ministry of Health reported that there were almost no healthy high school students left in Russia. 

It cited colossal workloads as the main reason for the students' declining health, particularly, stress due to exams.

Over the years, school exams have become a really serious test for the health of schoolchildren and tragic news arrives every year during the Unified State Examination. In 2021, a young man committed suicide in Moscow after failing an exam in chemistry. Three years ago, a girl from the Tambov region took her own life because of an exam in mathematics. 

In 2018, for a student from North Ossetia, the exam ended in a coma, and in 2019 in Cheboksary, a girl with congenital heart disease died during an exam. 

And how many more graduates fall ill during exams, but, fortunately, do not come to a fatal end? For example, in 2020, in the process of writing their graduation theses, several Penza schoolchildren “snoozed”: there were no air conditioners in the examination room. A similar situation was found in Kursk and in other cities.

The current schoolchildren are being artificially cheated, even the pro-government Tsargrad, believes. “Children are under pressure – “it is necessary to pass!” From morning to evening, tension is growing,” says Olga Matvievskaya, a senior psychotherapist. 

Another reason for the increased anxiety of schoolchildren is that the exam is taken within the framework of a soulless system. 

"Help Above the Human Condition"

According to Kazan journalist Aliyev, children's health problems and delayed or poor-quality medical care are the main causes of deaths in schools today.

“However, it is impossible to limit the circle of those responsible for these tragedies. There are a combination of factors that, at first glance, do not seem overly significant: the number of lessons, the curriculum, paperwork. However, all of these affect the child's condition, to varying degrees."

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