Role of education in responding to COVID-19 and other threats

Education systems should be part of the response to prevent, limit or slow the spread of the virus and curtail its impact. Compared to the education system, the public health system has a smaller presence.

The education system has a large institutional base that links it to the community, especially through the parent body. Schools are the primary institutional form of government with a physical presence and relationship through parenthood with a significant proportion of adults in the population.

Information and knowledge can be communicated with learners and their parents about potential health threats to people and the community at large. The range of ways in which schools might support a campaign to limit the impact of a virus-like COVID-19 requires investigation into processes that might be undertaken and the materials and instruments these would need. For this reason, closer collaboration between education and health sectors should prove fruitful and joint interaction between Education, Health and other relevant government departments would be needed to explore the potential for collaboration.

In its Managing Epidemics handbook of 2018, the WHO sets out a basic framework or model for a comprehensive outbreak response at an individual country level. This model is a standardised basis for managing an epidemic in every country and is necessary for international cooperation. The framework provides a starting point for identifying areas of outbreak response in which educational institutions can play a role.

Table 1 (WHO, 2018: 31) identifies four key response elements. In the right-hand column, ‘Role for education institutions’ has been inserted to map potential roles for education departments, and specifically schools, in relation to the WHO outbreak responses. Education institutions would play a limited role in outbreak response (A) ‘Coordinating Responders’, (B) ‘Health Information’ or (C) ‘Health Interventions’ but could play an important role in (D) ‘Communicating Risk’.

Key outbreak response framework elements including a role for schools

Outbreak response in WHO handbook for country level Definitions Role for education institutions
A)    Coordinating Responders The team of national and international partners who plan and coordinate the response May include Education Ministry as a partner
B)     Health Information Information form surveillance of the outbreak and about interventions undertaken No
C)     Health Interventions Reducing transmission, morbidity, mortality and impact on health systems No

Core health competence

D)    Communicating Risk Relaying information, listening to and engraving communities, and managing rumours and misinformation Yes

Education can play a crucial role

According to the WHO, community engagement needs to be achieved through dialogue. The following three elements are important to ensure effective community engagement (WHO, 2018: 39, 40–41):

  1. Knowledge: communities must know what the disease is, how it is transmitted, and how to protect against it.
  2. Self-efficacy: communities must be able to implement control measures (e.g. access to soap and water, to gloves, to waste management).
  3. Trust: this is an important influence to ensure that communities heed public health advice.

Schools can provide access to reliable information resources, strengthening household and community capability and retaining trust in government during the crisis.

A national public COVID-19 education awareness campaign at schools and circuit/district offices could involve the following elements. Some of these activities may be taken forward depending on the time available for preparation, consultation and implementation.

  1. Create capacity at District and Circuit Offices (communication with schools, school management and closure, teacher infections and learner infections, testing protocols).
  2. Create capacity for School Management Teams (how to take care of/manage and isolate students with fever and respiratory symptoms until collected from school).
  3. Create capacity including a curriculum component for teachers to take into classrooms (background and support to facilitate a lesson on the COVID-19).
  4. Awareness of self and family care and protection information for learners (campaign materials and activities to provide information about COVID-19 that are related to relevant subject areas in the curriculum).
  5. Capacity and awareness campaign for parents on how the schools will be responding to COVID-19 (clear information about protection of themselves and family members and how schools can respond).
  6. Education awareness campaign for custodial staff (self-care and role in sanitising the school environment).

School closures do not remove learners from the risk of infection. Social sources of infection in the neighbourhood are therefore a matter of concern. The activity patterns of children in the community, and who their care giver is, is relevant information.

Read the full article from JET, South Africa