COVID-19 is a health crisis. So why is health education missing from schoolwork?

Alice, 5, watches a video sent by school as she studies at home with her father Rodrigo Pinto as his work was suspended during a lockdown imposed by the state government because of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Santo Andre, Brazil, March 26, 2020. REUTERS/Amanda Perobelli
Editor's note:

This op-ed was originally published by EdSurge.

Nearly all the world’s students—a full 90 percent of them—have now been impacted by COVID-19 related school closures. There are 188 countries in the world that have closed schools and universities due to the novel coronavirus pandemic as of early April. Almost all countries have instituted nationwide closures with only a handful, including the United States, implementing localized school closures.

The world has never before seen this scale of education disruption.

In recent decades, major disruptions to education mainly involved natural disasters, armed conflict, or epidemics in individual countries or sometimes regions. Even compared to school closures during previous global crises, such as the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic where 40 U.S. cities closed schools, and World War II, where 1 million children in the U.K. were forced out of school, the level of education disruption is much greater today, in part because 90 percent of the world’s young people are enrolled in primary school now—versus 40 percent in 1920.

Today, there are strong practices and approaches that the humanitarian community employs across almost any case in which education is disrupted for a protracted period of time. And some of the best strategies for sustaining education in emergencies have come from humanitarian crises like Sudan and Liberia.

Having worked on helping sustain education amid crises in over 20 countries, I’ve learned that one of the first things you do, after finding creative ways to continue educational activities, is incorporate life-saving health and safety messages.

In the early stages of the Darfur crisis in Sudan, I watched children led by an adult volunteer gather regularly under a tree or jerry-rigged tent to sing songs, play games, and learn about how to stay safe in a new environment. Studying math, reading, and writing was not the top priority; it was slowly integrated over time.

The focus was on providing a normalizing routine for children who had been recently uprooted from their homes and communicating urgent public health information and training. To mitigate the very real risk of cholera, everyone in the community had to learn where safe water was, where defecation should occur, and how to correctly wash their hands. Sharing the latest public health guidance through education networks was a powerful way to make sure children and their families knew what they had to do to protect themselves.

Yet, this week when I received my third-grade son’s packet to support remote learning while his school is closed, it had no information about COVID-19. Rather, it was a series of math, reading, drama, and science assignments—useful for continuing his learning, but clearly a missed opportunity for ensuring that he, and by extension his family, knew exactly what to do to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. Where were the age-appropriate materials that would equip students with the latest advice on how to stay safe?

Information from organizations such as the World Health Organization, which has several short videos on steps to stay safe and appropriate hand-washing techniques, or catchy posters on the topic from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, could easily be disseminated through schools. UNICEF has a short quiz to help students and families differentiate COVID-19 facts from fiction, and there is a range of general guidance for parents in talking to their children about COVID-19.

However, there is a remarkable dearth of easily accessible, age-appropriate materials that teachers can immediately use. Such resources could effectively illustrate exactly what staying six feet away from someone else looks like (the length of the average man laying down), how to effectively sanitize your home, and proper social-distancing etiquette when passing someone on the sidewalk or park.

Schools have long been used as vehicles to spread crucial public health information to not just students, but to their parents as well. This is true not only in humanitarian emergencies. In the U.S., schools have served as an effective channel for promoting behavior change on topics as diverse as smoking cessation and childhood obesity reduction.

In some ways, this crisis presents an opportunity for leveraging educational activities to message necessary changes to public health behavior. Many countries that have closed schools today are moving to some form of remote learning—whether by printed materials, radio programs, or online learning—with a global coalition forming to help provide guidance and support. Given that many young people are learning from home now, it is likely that public health messages will be more quick than in normal circumstances to make it from the lesson book to the dinner table.

Yet in the U.S., the public health community has failed to systematically partner with schools to disseminate their life-saving messages. The CDC has detailed guidance for schools that includes how to prepare a response plan, what to do when a member of the school community has contracted COVID-19, when and how to close schools, and how to disinfect schools. They even recommend using distance learning strategies to ensure education continuity and remind schools to think about school meals. But they provide no specific guidance on the importance of incorporating public health messages into ongoing teaching and learning.

The public health community should immediately partner with school districts to ensure age-appropriate teaching and learning materials are readily available to all educators, including those whose schools have not yet been closed. The state departments of health should partner closely with the state departments of education to ensure ongoing, up-to-date, and regular public health messaging to students. Organizations such as the Council of Chief State School Officers could work closely with civil society coalitions, such as Learning Keeps Going, a coalition of nonprofits that provides a COVID-19 helpline to teachers and parents.

What we know from continuing education in humanitarian crises is that this important effort takes coordinated action from public health officials and school administrators, and in no way should the burden of deciding what life-saving messages should be prioritized each week be passed to teachers.

Much of what we know about education in emergencies comes from low-income countries where school buildings are no longer functional and communities are displaced. Thankfully for most countries with shuttered schools today this is not the case. If, in the remotest parts of war-ravaged Sudan, critical public health messages can be deployed through education activities, then surely the United States and other countries can quickly mobilize the vast remote learning school networks to do the same for COVID-19.