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Reach Out, Rebound, Reorientate: Strategies to Protect Mental Health in The School Ecosystem During COVID-19

Over the past year, education systems around the world have faced unprecedented disruption as governments respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. At the height of the pandemic last year, over 190 countries temporarily shuttered their schools and other learning institutions, measures which cut off over 1.6 billion learners from the classroom. Figures released by the UN’s lead education agency, UNESCO, show that many countries are now reopening their schools.[1] Significant work is also being undertaken by global development agencies to assess the extent of learning loss caused by the pandemic and the measures taken to contain it.[2] However, the full impact of COVID-19 on the mental health of teachers, other school workers, and students has yet to be fully assessed by the international community, amid mounting reports of severe mental health problems in students and teachers.[3]

In November 2020, the Varkey Foundation established a task force to discuss the mental health crisis in school systems around the world, composed of 15 teachers from 11 countries.[4] The task force held a series of online discussions and consulted with several subject specialists to formulate a range of recommendations for policymakers and teachers to safeguard mental well-being in schools. The experts consulted by the task force were Dr. Huma Masood, an education specialist from UNESCO; Dr Saliha Afridi, a leading clinical psychologist from the UAE; and Ms Katrina Spartalis, a school counselor working for the GEMS Education network of schools in the UAE. The group was chaired by Dr Saima Rana, Chief Education Ambassador at the Varkey Foundation.

In this document, the task force sets out its principal findings and makes a series of recommendations to policymakers and school administrations to help address COVID-19’s impact on the mental health of school ecosystems all over the world. The task force’s key recommendation is for leaders across school ecosystems to promote mental health literacy. If implemented, schools would be better equipped to recognize the early warning signs of severe mental health disorders in students and staff and to access avenues for treatment, either through school counsellors or other mental health experts such as medical professionals.

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