By Stefania Giannini, Assistant-Director-General for Education
The outbreak of COVID-19 is an unprecedented public health crisis, touching nearly all countries and communities across the world. To date, there have been more than 2.5 million confirmed cases and almost 200,000 reported deaths. The health impacts of COVID-19 are devastating and, rightly, in the forefront of our minds, across our media, and impacting people’s lives and livelihoods across the world.
Not all consequences of the pandemic are as visible. Strict isolation measures, the closure of schools and workplaces, and loss of income to many families has had, and will continue to have, significant negatives impacts upon education, health, and wellbeing.
Unfortunately, one of the most tangible outcomes of COVID-19 is the ever-increasing socio-economic gap between learners, with some of the most vulnerable children bearing the greatest impacts. Over 365 million children are missing out on important school feeding programmes, which keep them healthy and motivated to learn. Lack of access to school meals may compound loss of income due to the crisis, and families may be pushed to resort to negative coping mechanisms to meet their needs, including child labour or reducing the number and quality of meals at a time when staying healthy and keeping a strong immune system is particularly important.
Home learning may itself be a source of stress for families and learners, with pressure to take on new responsibilities, sometimes with limited time or resources. Many children are suffering from anxiety, living without access to the internet or other means required to benefit from distance learning. Some older children are stressed about missing months of education as they have to care for younger children in the home while parents and caregivers are working. Parents/caregivers who do not have the same level of education, or do not speak the major language of instruction in the country, or who have children with special educational needs, face compounded challenges.
The mental health implications of the COVID-19 outbreak are far reaching. In Thailand, a recent survey of 6,771 students conducted by the United Nations, in association with the Children and Youth Council of Thailand, found that more than 7 in 10 children and young people said the pandemic is affecting their mental health, causing stress, worry and anxiety. More than half of respondents also said they are worried about studies, exams and future education and employment, and 7 per cent were concerned about domestic violence.
Past experience tells us that there are also heightened sexual and reproductive health vulnerabilities and risks when schools close for more than a few weeks, particularly among the most disadvantaged, and among girls. With more and more families under financial stress and many falling into poverty, and children left unsupervised as parents work away from the home, rates of early and forced marriage and early and unintended pregnancy increase. There are also increased incidents of unplanned or forced sexual activity in adolescents and young people, presenting risks such as sexually transmitted infections (STIs) including HIV.
As the world faces this unparalleled challenge, the critical role that schools play in supporting the health and wellbeing of learners, and indeed the whole school community, through school health and wellbeing programmes, has become more appreciated than ever. Worldwide, ministries of education are innovating to support learners’ health and wellbeing during school closures, recognizing that health and social issues impact education and connecting school families with much needed support services, from health promoting learning resources, to counselling and sexual and reproductive health services.
Going forward, as schools gradually re-open, ministries of education must consider how to maintain appropriate health and hygiene standards to prevent transmission of COVID-19, to ensure that teachers and other school staff can work safely and effectively. With health needs varying significantly within and between countries, these ministries are now called upon to ‘know their epidemic’, identifying the most vulnerable groups, and the age and gendered nature of the impacts.
Compounding the challenges, governments must also now look for ways to get much-needed meals to families who need it most, as a result of the disruption to regular school-feeding programmes. This ensures they can continue to receive their food and nutritional requirements while being supported to deal with a potential loss of income during the crisis. Families are receiving take-home rations in lieu of meals, home delivery of food, or cash or vouchers.
The next step for these families will be the transition back to school-based learning as education institutions open. Nearly 1.3 billion students are still impacted by school closures in 186 countries. Many of these learners and their teachers are already experiencing physical or mental health issues resulting from the extended period of confinement, and in some cases, they have lost family members during the pandemic.
It will not be business as usual. Based on guidance from the World Health Organization, UNESCO, UNICEF, World Bank and the World Food Programme have released a Framework for Reopening Schools, which gives prominent attention to health and protection measures. Together we are committed to supporting ministries of education and health around the world to not only maintain learning during school reopenings, but to prioritize the ever-important health and well-being of our school communities.