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A secondary impact of COVID-19: FHI 360 supports students through pandemic

May 11, 2020

Two boys smilingDuring emergencies, response efforts often address health and other immediate needs before education and emotional well-being. But, the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting every aspect of life and exposing inequities around the world. As students are forced to stay home, their educational and social-emotional growth can suffer.

FHI 360 is harnessing its experience in providing social-emotional learning (SEL) in emergencies to support children and youth, as well as their parents, caregivers and school stakeholders. These efforts are taking place in several countries — including Djibouti, Ghana, Jamaica, Nigeria and Senegal — and are leveraging text messages, radio, internet platforms and television to reach people in remote and vulnerable communities with learning plans and social-emotional support. Programming is projected to reach more than 500,000 students, who are now receiving messages specifically designed for coping with uncertainty and anxiety associated with COVID-19. These messages are integrated into literacy and numeracy lessons for children and career planning lessons for young adults.

Below, Stefanie Kendall, FHI 360’s Technical Director for Education in Emergencies, shares why this work is so critical — especially during the COVID-19 pandemic — and what FHI 360 is doing to support students so they can continue to grow now and in the future.

Tell us about FHI 360’s approach to social-emotional learning in emergencies.
SEL helps children in crisis and conflict sift through complicated emotions, increase their resilience to life’s knocks and make better decisions through life. Learning is certainly important, but emotional security is a critical foundation for children’s intellectual and emotional development.

Our programs integrate health messaging relevant to the communities in which they operate. With COVID-19, that includes messages about washing hands, wearing a mask and maintaining social distance, plus information on curfew, market hours and so on. We aim to reduce the spread of the virus and help students return to classrooms as soon as possible. SEL includes acknowledging that these are unprecedented and stressful days, but they will become less stressful, provided communities band together against the spread of the virus.

How has the pandemic impacted FHI 360’s SEL efforts?
COVID-19 has altered the way we provide SEL for children and youth. A sense of community is important for SEL, and efforts to maintain and sustain community have been challenged. Because children are at home, we need to include programming that also speaks to parents and caregivers. They are the ones who help turn on the radio for the child or who receive the SMS messages. They can help make the child’s environment as stable and consistent as possible.

COVID-19 runs the risk of severely disenfranchising those who have the least available to them. We are investigating resultant inequities across our projects. For example, some families have internet access, while others do not; some parents are literate, while others are not. We cannot use the same approach for every child. We are continuously investigating ways to reach all children, regardless of their access to media or the level of support they can receive at home. This is why we use multiple methods, from internet, to radio, to push messages on cell phones, to an info-line for parents and learning facilitators.

Please describe the types of messages your team develops.
We have created specific messages for the pandemic, divided by age group. Examples of messages for young children include, “Are you sitting comfortably? Can you feel your breath?” It is about awareness and well-being, helping children to gain an intimacy with their emotional lives, and letting the child know she or he is cared about. For parents, messages acknowledge that this is a stressful time. Right now, there is a high demand for this intervention to maintain social connection.

What are your thoughts on the secondary impacts of COVID-19 and how SEL can help mitigate them?
We do not know how long COVID-19 will have a grip on our communities. This can cause increased anxiety, a demotivation to adhere to best health practices and — of course — severe economic burdens and food insecurity. COVID-19 has deeply and rapidly affected whole communities. In fragile contexts, that could be devastating and will take longer to bounce back from. By leveraging all sectors to respond to COVID-19’s impacts, we can support schools and communities and tighten people’s social safety nets.

SEL teaches people how to navigate through life and connect with community during times of severe instability. We must invest in our future, and SEL is critical to that. It provides a grounding for what can feel like a groundless environment.

Learn more about FHI 360’s socio-emotional work.

Photo credit: Renate Wefers/EyeEm/Getty Images