Education in times of war

During World War I, education in the occupied areas was at a low ebb. A considerable number of teachers voluntarily enlisted in the military at the beginning of the war; others fled the area with their families, leaving many schools short-staffed. Replacement teachers and nuns stepped in to fill the positions left vacant in the local schools.

Furthermore, most school buildings were claimed by the German occupier and converted into field hospitals or central depots. The school in Hooglede-Sleihage served as a canteen for the German troops and was also used to stable horses. The municipal school of Oekene became a German hospital for the treatment of typhoid patients. Educational materials often did not survive the German takeover. Books, notebooks and writing tools were scattered across the floor; many desks were reduced to firewood. 

The shortage in class rooms that ensued caused many schools to relocate to pubs, shops and barracks. Around Easter, 1917, teachers in Dadizele were forced to move their activities to guesthouses and bakeries, while their Ingelmunster colleagues found shelter in the church vestry. In Roeselare, students followed classes in over 20 different locations across the city. 

Another problem was the imminent danger on the streets, which forced many pupils to stay at home with their parents. In pre-wartime Izegem, it was customary for children to go to the Klein Seminarie school in Roeselare on foot. When Germany occupied the area and the free movement of people across municipal borders was restricted, this was no longer an option. Moreover, although attendance at school had been made compulsory prior to the war, the law was by no means ingrained in Belgium society by the time war broke out. Given that most familial breadwinners had joined the armed forces, it seemed logical to many parents to keep their children at home to help around the house. The children were sometimes homeschooled by helpful teachers or doctors. 

At odd intervals during the war, classes were resumed at the insistence of the schools proper, or at the request of the Germans, who were mostly looking to serve their own purpose. Keeping children off the streets and out of the way of the German troops was important to guarantee their safety and, by extension, to avoid an increase in anti-German propaganda. To this end, German authorities repeatedly reminded the Belgian population of the compulsory education law. On October 28th, 1916, principal Emile Benoot of the secular boys' school in Roeselare was made to put out a special notice outside the school and was instructed to inform his pupils that attendance was mandatory. Children who skipped school often got up to all sorts of mischief, for which they were sometimes severely punished by the Germans.

When a school reopened it was often but partially operative, as large parts of the school remained occupied to quarter German soldiers. School regulations had to be revised in order to meet the extraordinary circumstances: classes were limited to a few hours every day and recess was cancelled. As a compensatory measure, pupils were given extra homework. 

Many children fled the BIE-area along with their families and were given the opportunity to continue their education in newly founded Flemish schools abroad, such as the one in La Rochelle, France. By the same token, the BIE-region provided schooling for children of refugees who had arrived from other parts of Belgium. The Heilig Hart school, founded by the sisters of Grauw, for instance, counted many children from Ypres among its pupils.