Health and education ministers of countries in WHO’s South-East Asia region on Tuesday committed to health-promoting schools for healthier generations and societies, and for schools to remain operational even during public health emergencies. The ministers as well as heads of United Nations agencies also called for maintaining strong education systems that are well prepared for future emergencies, to bounce back from the COVID-19 pandemic.
The pandemic is a strong reminder of the importance of maintaining strong education systems that support the interlinked objectives of education and health for all children and adolescents, in normal circumstances as well as during emergency situations like this pandemic, said Dr Poonam Khetrapal Singh, Regional Director, WHO South-East Asia’ Singh convened a meeting of the heads of partner agencies UNESCO, UNFPA, UNICEF and WFP, and health and education ministers from the region on Health Promoting Schools. At the three-day inter-ministerial meeting that began Tuesday, the health and education ministers from countries in WHO South-East Asia Region adopted a Call to Action to scale up the implementation of comprehensive school health programmes that promote the health and wellbeing of children and adolescents, a statement by the World Health Organisation (WHO) said.
As a prelude to the ministerial meeting, the regional leadership of UNESCO, UNFPA, UNICEF, WFP and WHO held a summit and deliberated on strengthening school health programmes in the region and signed a joint UN statement on strengthening education, school health, nutrition and well-being to collectively advocate for a healthier generation and provide harmonised joint technical support to countries, it said. The Health Promoting School approach aims at advancing health, nutrition, mental health and the overall wellbeing of school-age children and adolescents, teachers and other staff members.
As children and adolescents spend most of their formative years in schools, promoting healthy behaviour from early childhood through the school setting will benefit their immediate and later health in their adult life, as well as the health and wellbeing of their families and wider communities. The pandemic has exacerbated inequities and is disproportionately affecting the most marginalised and disadvantaged children in the region. Children are learning less and numerous health and nutrition services that were once provided from schools have stopped.
”School closures and isolation have taken a severe toll on children’s mental health and is exposing them to exploitation and harm. We must act urgently to safely reintroduce children back to school while making sure learning continues uninterrupted for children everywhere, said George Laryea-Adjei, UNICEF Regional Director for South Asia. With the pandemic and prolonged school closures significantly impacting education, health, and nutrition, the member countries and partners discussed prioritising reopening of schools, where possible, and their safe operations and preparedness for future outbreaks.
Building forward better’ from COVID-19, and pursuing a mission to recover education, requires us to rethink how we deliver quality and inclusive education to all children and adolescents in the Asia-Pacific region. Among other things, this necessitates urgent investment in school health and nutrition programmes and creating the overall conditions for learners to lead healthy lives, said Shigeru Aoyagi, Director, UNESCO Asia and Pacific Regional Bureau for Education. Adequate public health and social measures should be ensured while reopening schools such as wearing of masks, physical distancing, provisions of soap and running water to facilitate hand-washing, and use of open and well-ventilated spaces.
Measures should be in place to immediately control any outbreak in the school along with long-term preparedness plan to deal with future emergencies. Member countries and partner agencies also discussed measures to enhance collaboration between health, education, and other relevant ministries, local governments and stakeholders, including adolescents, to ensure implementation of the Health Promoting Schools initiative.
For many of the millions of students across the Asia region who receive school meals, it is often the most substantial and nourishing meal they have each day, said John Aylieff, WFP Regional Director for Asia and the Pacific. World Food Programme (WFP) welcomes the renewed commitment of countries in the region to give their children access to the nutrition they need to grow, mentally and physically. We have an opportunity to strengthen our school systems so that no child is forced to drop out of school because of hunger or illness again, he said.
The initiative also supports the immediate need to continue nutrition and health services in schools, foster youth engagement for safe reopening and safe operations of schools and deliver an integrated school curriculum, including adolescent sexual and reproductive health, for enhanced health literacy and life skills. The Health Promoting Schools initiative is expected to serve over 2.3 billion school-age children and 362 million adolescents (10-19 years) in the WHO South-East Asia Region and will contribute to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals in the fields of education and health, they said.