Moving towards Child-Friendly Schools in Jamaica
Speech by Fayval Williams, Minister of Education and Youth, speaks during a side-event during the Transforming Education Summit 17 September 2022 at UNICEF House in New York
Earlier this year, Jamaican children and adolescents returned to school physically after two years of online learning. In the wake of the pandemic, their health and safety were of the highest priority. However, COVID-19 is not the only health challenge our students face.
The return to face-to-face classroom interaction comes with some key prevention regulations. We insist on wearing masks and promote social distancing, handwashing and sanitization. In fact, Water, Sanitation and Hygiene have become a priority in our schools and we have completed a sector wide audit to improve sustainable access to clean water that includes the installation of handwashing stations and rainwater harvesting tanks where needed, with significant support from UNICEF. Tens of thousands of children have benefitted so far from these interventions.
To support improved learning outcomes, we recognize that our children need safer school environments that protect all aspects of their health. COVID-19 has exacerbated nutrition and mental health challenges that existed for decades before its onset.
Low levels of physical activity coupled with the consumption of large amounts of ultra-processed foods, high in sugar, unhealthy fats and salt, instead of fruits and vegetables, have been driving up overweight/obesity and non-communicable diseases (NCDs) in children, adolescents and adults in Jamaica. Approximately nine per cent (9 per cent) of Jamaican children under five years old are overweight. According to the Global School Based Student Health Surveys, over the past decade, the rate of obesity doubled among adolescent boys and increased by almost 50 per cent (50 per cent) in adolescent girls aged 13-17.
We are keenly aware that the food environment in and around schools influences our children’s food choices and helps shape their eating habits. The return to school, therefore, is an opportunity to create an environment that makes them aware of their right to healthy foods and good health.
In 2019, for example, we implemented Interim Guidelines for Beverages in Schools that restrict the sale of sweetened drinks with high sugar content. We were able to engage and educate a wide range of stakeholders – students, parents, school leaders, concessionaires, and vendors as well as private sector players. The move was not without opposition, but we pressed forward convinced that it was in the best interest of our children. The next step is to finalize and approve our National School Nutrition Policy.
We recognize that a National School Nutrition Policy can support good health and educational outcomes by ensuring adequate and equal access to healthy meals for all students. Once approved, the policy will provide overarching guidance for the types of meals and snacks available and how these are marketed in our schools. This will support our vision to create an environment in which children are enabled to engage in physical activity and choose wholesome meals.
As the country recovers from two years of staggering learning loss, we recognize that Jamaican children, like many around the world, are under significant stress. Disturbing events of violence between students, since the return to school, are but a symptom of the social and mental health challenges that our children are experiencing.
Additionally, some 80 per cent of Jamaican children are believed to experience forms of violence in their homes and communities. We know that violence can significantly impact children's health, quality of life, academic achievement, and their mental health.
A 2020 study conducted by UNICEF looking at the impact of the pandemic on families, showed most households reported increases in children’s level of boredom (63 per cent), overeating (57 per cent), frustration (41 per cent), clinginess (49 per cent), anxiety (23 per cent), and fear (21 per cent).
The impact of school closures, separation from social groups and social distancing has had a tremendous impact on children and young people’s mental health and their ability to access peer support or necessary services.
Added to this, pre-pandemic research shows that one in every four Jamaican students has considered suicide. The Ministry of Health and Wellness reports that up to 60 per cent of those treated at hospitals for attempted suicides are adolescents and young people under age 24.
That is the bad news.
However, in the midst of this, there is some good news to report.
The good news is that the Government of Jamaica is strongly committed to changing this stark reality over the long term. We are working with our partners, including UNICEF, to prioritize safe and healthier schools. We are making adolescent mental health services more widely available and youth-friendly by establishing tele-mental health services so that children in remote areas and those who are challenged to get to the service can access professional support virtually.
Through resources from UNICEF, Jamaica now has the U-Matter chatline – a text messaging service that engages adolescents in a space where they are very comfortable. U-Matter provides free first line emotional support to those in need.
Importantly, we have been working with the Ministry of Health and Wellness, with support from UNICEF, to implement the Jamaica Moves in Schools programme. We understand that sitting for hours is deleterious to both mind and body. The Jamaica Moves in Schools programme is designed to incorporate movement into the school day. This is also being promoted through the School Nutrition Policy as nutrition and movement go hand in hand to foster a healthy lifestyle.
In our schools, we are also building out the School-Wide Positive Behaviour Intervention and Support framework. We have also launched a Character Education movement that reinforces positive values among students and non-violent ways of managing conflict.
Psychosocial support is a key component of our learning recovery plans and we have developed courses for our teachers to augment socio-emotional learning. We are incorporating the Return to Happiness methodology and have created structures for checking-in with students regularly, while being on the alert for specific needs and referrals.
We know how vital partnerships are to achieving these critical child friendly goals and we stand ready to continue to work with all our stakeholders as we seek to cushion the very hard blow that COVID-19 has dealt our children.
Together, we can achieve learning recovery and become more resilient through systems that help our children maintain good health and increase their access to quality education.
UNICEF promotes the rights and wellbeing of every child, in everything we do. Together with our partners, we work in 190 countries and territories to translate that commitment into practical action, focusing special effort on reaching the most vulnerable and excluded children, to the benefit of all children, everywhere.
For more information about UNICEF and its work for children in Jamaica, visit www.unicef.org/jamaica.