The international conference Protection of the adolescent health and development in context of COVID-19 crisis was held online on 26-27 November 2020. Tigran Yepoyan and Alexandra Ilieva of UNESCO IITE’s Unit of ICT in Health Education spoke at several webinars during the conference and shared UNESCO IITE’s experience of promoting healthy lifestyle in the context of school closures and transition to distance learning.
Conference: Main Context. Children, Adolescents and COVID-19
Children and adolescents are less likely than adults to contract COVID-19, and if they do, their symptoms are often mild. However, the COVID-19 pandemic still has a significant impact on child and adolescent health worldwide.
Access to Education
Globally, in the spring and summer of 2020, more than 1.5 billion school students switched from face-to-face to online learning. As a result, they lost an estimated 1.5-2 months of schooling and many were unable to fully master the curriculum. One in eight students was effectively denied access to quality education. The resulting decline in academic performance as well as loss of family income prevented many students from pursuing their education in colleges and universities. According to the World Bank’s global estimates, today’s primary and secondary school students could face a substantial reduction in earnings due to lower levels of school attainment and learning.
Access to Healthcare
According to the WHO survey, 90% of countries report disruptions to essential health services since the COVID-19 pandemic started, such as child immunisation gaps and longer waiting times to receive routine care for adolescents and adults.
Psychological and Physical Well-being
Remote learning, quarantine, loss of employment and income, domestic violence, limited access to education due to digital divide, challenging home environment and needing to help one’s family have all caused stress, anxiety and depression in children and adolescents and their parents.
Increased screen time, longer hours of study and homework, limited physical activity and other factors also have an adverse effect on adolescents’ physical health.
High on Today’s Agenda
More than 800 conference participants from Europe and Central Asia discussed various aspects of providing healthcare and psychological support to adolescents in the context of a pandemic to promote their rights to health and quality education.
Dr. Valentina Baltag, head of Adolescent Health Policies, Planning and Programmes at the WHO Headquarters, made a keynote presentation on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on adolescents and young people and presented the new WHO considerations for school-related public health measures in the context of COVID-19.
Besides being the conference organizer and moderator, Galina Lesco, Head of NEOVITA Youth Friendly Health Centre, spoke about adolescents’ health and described services offered by youth friendly centres in the Republic of Moldova during the pandemic.
Vladislav Kuchma, Corresponding Member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, presented the results of a large-scale survey of Russian school students which found a range of physical and mental health problems affecting youth in the context of distance learning.
Nicola Gray, IAAH (International Association for Adolescent Health) Vice President for Europe, presented the Association’s statement on adolescent sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Vitaly Nikonovich, Director of the Laboratory of Innovative Projects, shared the experience of Belarus in providing psychosocial counselling to adolescents online.
Drashko Kostovsky representing the International Planned Parenthood Federation’s European Network (IPPF EN) presented the network’s innovative approaches to educating adolescents about sexual and reproductive health during quarantine.
A separate session dedicated to adolescent mental health featured talks by Prof. Pierre-André Michaud of the University of Lausanne and by Tigran Yepoyan, UNESCO Regional Health Education Adviser.
Tigran Yepoyan presented international research findings on the impact of school closures and broader pandemic on child and adolescent mental health, wellbeing and education. He also provided examples of how psychological counselling services in Eastern Europe and Central Asia have adapted to the current circumstances to continue supporting students and their parents.
Education for Health
The second day of the conference was devoted to adolescent health promotion and education.
Dr. Valentina Baltag from the WHO HQ in Geneva presented Global Standards for Health Promoting Schools developed with support from WHO and UNESCO, and Ilya Zhukov from the UNFPA HQ introduced the International Technical and Programmatic Guidance on Out-of-School Comprehensive Sexuality Education developed by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), with collaborating partners from the WHO, UNESCO, UNICEF and UNAIDS.
Tigran Yepoyan summarised key recommendations to build resilience in education systems, teachers, learners and parents in the COVID-19 crisis. Very broadly, these recommendations concern four areas of education:
Identify out-of-school children and adolescents and provide socioeconomic support to enable re-enrolment; provide IT devices and internet access for remote learning to the most marginalised; strengthen school attendance monitoring.
Develop and implement flexible/blended teaching and learning strategies; revise instructional practices; build teacher and student digital competences; introduce programs to build student socioemotional skills as well as health and relationships literacy; support individualised teaching.
Strengthen MHPSS services for students and teachers; raise student awareness about socioemotional and mental health issues and engage with parents on an ongoing basis; monitor student and teacher workload; ensure early detection of students at risk for marginalisation and violence and engage with social and protection services; prevent violence, bullying and cyberbullying at school and in the remote learning context.
Follow health and safety requirements to protect students and school staff in the context of COVID-19; allocate financial and technical resources to support such measures.
A separate session on health promoting schools featured best practice presentations by A. Abildina and N. Silitrari, national coordinators of health promoting schools in Kazakhstan and Moldova.
Extracurricular Approaches to Youth Health Promotion and Education
The final session of the conference attracted particular interest and the largest number of positive comments in the chat. The session showcased various approaches and digital solutions for health promotion and education.
Alexandra Ilieva presented UNESCO IITE’s ongoing and new projects to educate adolescents and young people about health, love and relationships, including DVOR, a social media-based community to educate teens about the physiology and psychology of growing up; Eli, an AI-powered consultant chatbot designed to answer questions about sexual and reproductive health, contraception, HIV prevention and relationships; digital releases of II (Two), a teen drama about bullying, teen struggles and HIV, and School Elections, an interactive television series in the Kyrgyz language about living with HIV and fighting for justice. Alexandra shared insights on the promising formats of engaging with young audiences which were used in the above projects and then acquired added relevance in the COVID-19 pandemic.
Kristina Birk-Vellemaa of the Estonian Association for Sexual Health spoke about Estonia’s experience in providing sexuality education in and out of school.
Adriana Radu from Romania offered an update on her SEXUL vs BARZA (Sex or Stork) video blog for teens and young people.
Galina Lesco provided a wrap-up and closed the conference. Speaker presentations are available on the conference website.
The conference was organized by the NEOVITA National Resource Centre for Youth-Friendly Health Services in partnership with the Ministry of Health, Labour and Social Protection and the Ministry of Education, Culture and Research of the Republic of Moldova, the World Health Organization (WHO), the UNESCO Institute for Information Technologies in Education (UNESCO IITE), the International Association for Adolescent Health (IAAH), United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), with support from the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC).