Schools are more than just a platform for knowledge, UNESCO webinar highlights

When the more than 800,000 learners in Namibia return to school after the long period of COVID-19 confinement, schools will be a very different place. The Government plans to ensure hand-washing stations are accessible to all students, buildings cleaned and disinfected, and to ensure that toilets are available and separated for girls and boys.

The reality of life in Namibian schools and other educational institutions, however, means that these goals to improve hygiene could be difficult to achieve. Despite low reported rates of COVID-19 infection in Namibia, overcrowding in educational institutions makes social distancing difficult. Additionally, teachers may find it difficult to always be able to observe and enforce hand washing. The availability and disbursement of funds to support these efforts can delay initiatives.

The Executive Director of the Namibian Ministry of Education, Arts and Culture, Sanet Steenkamp, acknowledged the challenges at a webinar on Maintaining learner health and well-being during school closure and reopening, on 30 April. The seventh in a series of UNESCO COVID-19 Education Response webinars, it looked at how education and health sectors can apply evidence-informed actions to promote and protect the health and well-being of students.

The webinar looked at the range of health and well-being challenges which have emerged in countries across the world. Globally, 365 million children missed out on the school feeding programmes they depend on, others were exposed to or even experienced violence within the home, and many were susceptible to the heightened sexual and reproductive health risks that emerge when schools close for more than a few weeks. Some of the most vulnerable students bear the greatest impacts, especially girls, with the COVID-19 pandemic highlighting the ever-increasing socio-economic gap between learners.

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on health and well-being

The link between education and health has become more appreciated than ever, said the Director of the UNESCO division of Education for Peace and Sustainable Development, Vibeke Jensen, opening the webinar. “The unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic has left us with devastating health impacts. It has also revealed other, less visible consequences. The strict isolation measures, the closure of schools and workplaces, and loss of income to many families has had, and will continue to have, significant negative impacts upon education, mental health and well-being,” Ms Jensen said.

A survey of 6000 young people in Thailand recently revealed that more than 7 in 10 children and young people said the pandemic is affecting their mental health, causing stress, worry and anxiety.

Suphaphit Chaiyadit, President of the Children and Youth Council of Thailand, said the survey, conducted in partnership with the United Nations, revealed the strong need to strengthen mental health care for students. “Please help mobilizing to help take care of children and young people. Students are no different to people in other careers who have to struggle through the epidemic,” Ms Chaiyadit urged.

The high numbers of children missing vital school meals were highlighted by Carmen Burbano de Lara, Director of School Feeding Division at the World Food Programme. “369 million children are missing out on meals at school globally, with children in almost every country affected,” Ms Burbano said. “The longer children stay out of school the less likely they are to come back, especially girls. So we need incentives for families to send children back to school when they reopen. Meals are revealed to be one of the most important pull factors. If governments don’t ensure that is in place, and if agencies aren’t there to support, then we risk a whole generation of children not getting an education.”

Promoting health and well-being during school closure and reopening

Many countries are implementing innovative practices to maintain health and well-being in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. In Scotland, the Government has put in place volunteer-supported ‘hubs’ to provide services for families which include key and essential workers, said Suzanne Hargreaves, Senior Education Officer at Education Scotland. This includes the provision of free school meals, child-care, and access to social workers.

In Jamaica, the Government is supporting teachers to provide health education lessons for primary and secondary learners that have been specifically designed for remote learning platforms, including through online and broadcast modalities, said Anna-Kay Magnus Watson, National Coordinator for Health and Family Life Education, HIV & AIDS, at the Ministry of Education in Jamaica. Topics include appropriate eating and fitness, emotional and mental well-being and sexual and reproductive health.

As confinement measures around the world are slowly lifted, and students and teachers prepare to return to schools, countries must be ready to not only maintain learning, but to focus on the health and well-being of school communities.

The need to prioritize hygiene through schools is more important than ever, said Seung Lee, Senior Director of School Health and Nutrition at Save the Children. Ms Lee highlighted the pressing need for safe water and sanitation in schools, including access to drinking water, single-sex and usable sanitation facilities, and water and soap for handwashing. “Now, more than ever, it is vital that promising policies are shared and replicated with the goal of maintaining learning and promoting health and wellbeing of learners and school communities, she said.