About Chris Castle
Chris Castle is UNESCO's Global Coordinator for HIV and AIDS, and the Chief of the Section of Health and Education, in UNESCO's Education Sector, based in UNESCO Headquarters in Paris, France. Mr. Castle has more than 25 years of development experience in the areas of education and health. His most recent position before joining UNESCO in 2004 was as a Research Associate at the Horizons Programme, led by the Population Council, managing operations research in the areas of HIV prevention, treatment, care and support. Mr. Castle holds a BS in International Studies and French from The American University, and an MSc in International Relations from the London School of Economics
The closure of schools and transition to home learning to help stop the spread of COVID-19 has been stressful for many students, parents, and teachers.
Not all families have access to the internet or other means to benefit from distance learning, and some older students have to help care for younger siblings in the home while parents and caregivers work. Others are simply struggling to keep up with their teaching or learning, and to stay motivated.
Feelings of anxiety and powerlessness during this period are very normal and I would encourage all young people and their families to draw on skills and strategies that have helped them to manage life challenges in the past, like keeping active, staying healthy and keeping connected with friends and family.
At the Section for Health and Education at UNESCO, we have been working hard to support countries and their school communities to look after the health and well-being of students and teachers, during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The pandemic has devastated many families, with the rates of infection and losses of life still soaring in some parts of the world. There are also other, less visible consequences; for example the impacts on education, mental health and well-being.
In fact, 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.
Our Assistant Director-General for Education, Stefania Giannini, wrote an opinion piece on these less visible consequences, and we published an issues note on health and nutrition during home learning, which looks at how families and learners can be supported during this period. We also hosted a webinar on promoting and protecting the health and well-being of students, the seventh in a series of UNESCO COVID-19 Education Response webinars.
The webinar looked at the health and well-being challenges we are seeing in countries across the world during the pandemic. Globally, 365 million children missed out on the school feeding programmes they need, others saw 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. Unfortunately, the most vulnerable students are hit hardest, especially girls.
As part of our work to reduce these impacts, we are reaching out to countries in sub-Saharan Africa through the Our Rights, Our Lives, Our Future program, the largest comprehensive sexuality education program in the world, and that includes consideration around the health and wellbeing of young people, and the health issues that are important to them. We are therefore using digital channels and radio programs to make sure that all children and young people understand basic, age-appropriate information about COVID-19, including its symptoms, complications, how it is transmitted and how to prevent transmission. It's also a way for young people to access the sexual and reproductive health information they would otherwise be getting in school.
UNESCO is also working with the Safe to Learn coalition, and we have been looking at how to address the heightened risks of cyberbullying, sexual harassment and other harms during COVID-19. We put together a technical note, guidance for education ministries, and a set of recommendations for governments. We hope that these resources will help governments and policy-makers keep students safe.
For some students, home is not the safe place it should be. When schools close for more than a few weeks, the most vulnerable children and young people are often left behind. Socioeconomic pressures can exacerbate violence against children in the home, including physical, sexual, emotional, economic violence, abuse and neglect.
Further, digital safety is a major concern. The issue of cyberbullying is widespread. So is access to harmful content, risk-taking behavior and the inappropriate collection, use and sharing of data. This year, on the first Thursday in November, the first International Day Against Violence and Bullying at School including Cyberbullying will be held. Started by UNESCO, the day recognizes that school-related violence in all its forms is unacceptable. It denies children and adolescents the right to education and to health and well-being. We would encourage you to help support and promote this new international day.
We now turn our attention to the next phase of COVID-19 – the reopening of schools. This will be welcome news for many.
Please follow the guidelines and rules that will be provided by your school when it reopens. You can be confident that schools will only be reopened after careful assessment of the situation, with consensus among all the key parties involved, including health and education policy-makers, teachers and other school staff, parents, and health and community workers.
Thank you for your time today. You will find more information in this edition of the ASPnet newsletter, which I hope you enjoy reading.
I wish all school communities a safe and healthy transition back to school.