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Filling support gaps for at-risk youth in Jamaica during pandemic-related school closures

October 29, 2020

From left to right: Kevin Brooks, Morana Smodlaka Krajnović (FHI 360), Erica Allen (Peace Management Initiative).In March, Jamaica closed its borders and went into lockdown to slow the spread of COVID-19. The move helped to contain the virus, but it also shut down the country’s economy, the effects of which were especially devastating for people in low-income communities.

The measures included stay-at-home orders and school closures. The resulting loss of income and autonomy can intensify household stress, leading to increased rates of domestic conflict and violence. Nongovernmental organizations in Jamaica have reported that school closures are making youth — particularly those who are already at risk — more likely to interact with negative forces at home or in the community that can encourage their involvement in criminal and violent activities.

With schools closed, “Youth are exposed to bad influences that are strong in the community,” said Morana Smodlaka Krajnović, Chief of Party, Local Partner Development/FHI 360 Country Representative, Jamaica. “[These risks] are usually balanced by school, by teachers who put in extra effort, by social programs,” said Krajnović. “When all that shut down, youth lost these protective measures and experienced an increase in risk factors.”

From June through September, the Local Partner Development project, funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development, worked with the Peace Management Initiative Ltd. to provide psychosocial support services to 63 youth who were at high risk of engaging in criminal activities or who had joined a gang. The short-term initiative, the COVID-19 Rapid Response program, served youth ages 13 to 18 from vulnerable communities in downtown Kingston, Spanish Town and May Pen — three areas that were particularly impacted by the lockdown measures.

Youth and social workers provided tailored, one-on-one support to young people on topics ranging from coping with anger management to dealing with family conflict to handling the stress of losing a school support system. For some youth, they provided family therapy sessions to address stress at home.

Kerry-Ann Henriques is a social worker who works for the Peace Management Initiative Ltd. She served as a youth coordinator for the COVID-19 Rapid Response program and was a consultant for the Local Partner Development project. In one exercise, she has participants trace their hand on paper; inside the hand, they write the things they can control, and outside, they write the things they cannot control. Then, Henriques leads a discussion about how participants can deal with things they cannot control. Exercises like this can help people increase their resilience to disruption and uncertainty.

Henriques saw firsthand how the sessions impacted young people. One young man was able to quit smoking. Another participant, who had nearly been expelled from school, passed his math exams. Krajnović said, “[Even] in some of the harder hit families, youth have managed to cope, and we’ve seen cases of youth still doing well, still doing online school and getting decent grades.”

Henriques also saw how stay-at-home measures and school closures affected family stress levels. “When you’re one of 16 people living in one room, being able to leave to go to school gives you time away from what can be a stressful home environment,” said Henriques. Without that outlet, tensions at home can intensify. Frequent visits from the project team helped provide a support outlet for the young people.

The project gave youth who completed the sessions vouchers for about US$80 to support school expenses. The project also partnered with GraceKennedy Limited, Digicel Jamaica Foundation, Chippenham Eggs, CB Chicken and Spanish Grain Store to provide food and sanitation care packages to youth and their families.

COVID-19 cases rose in Jamaica after the initial lockdown measures were lifted. On October 5, schools reopened remotely — students can access lessons and materials online, through television and radio, and through printed materials dispersed in communities. Although the COVID-19 Rapid Response program ended in September, the Local Partner Development project has plans to work with schools to provide infrastructure and technology support to ensure that students can learn safely.

Photo caption: From left to right: Kevin Brooks, Morana Smodlaka Krajnović (FHI 360), Erica Allen (Peace Management Initiative).

Photo credit: Mark MacFarlane/FHI 360