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The COVID-19 pandemic has created a myriad of pressing issues and problems, especially for school districts, and has often resulted in more questions than answers. There is so much work to be done that health education may not be at the top of the list. But it should be. Many are stressing the importance of SEL (Social and Emotional Learning), especially now. SEL is embedded in quality, skills-based health education. Health education is directly tied to every lesson we have learned during this unprecedented time. It should be an essential part of the work and the planning that school districts are doing now and in the future.

We have learned a lot about ourselves and our society in recent months. School district administrators are glad they learned excellent budgeting, logistics, and spacing in math classes and are grateful to the ELA teachers who pushed them to write well so their communications would be clear. But many people may not have noticed how much they needed the lessons learned in health class, especially during this time. All of a sudden, lessons from health classes took on new importance:

Proper hand washing – It became crucial not to rush through it, but to pay attention to all the times you should wash, why, and how. Videos on washing for 20 seconds and getting bubbles on all the surfaces went viral.

Disease prevention – We increased attention to covering coughs and sneezes with an elbow or tissue (or, in this case, a mask) and tried really hard not to touch our eyes, noses, and mouths.

Physical activity – We had to get up and move. Online exercise programs and group exercise instructors teaching virtually both saw exponential growth in participation.

Nutrition – Treating ourselves was fun and delicious, but we felt better when we tried to eat real food most of the time.

Sunlight and fresh air – Quiet trails suddenly became busy, even on the coldest days, as people realized how much they appreciated getting off a screen and out into nature. They might not have understood how this helped to balance their hormonal systems and circadian rhythms, but they knew it felt good.

Sleep – What a difference it made to be able to wake to the sun, rested and refreshed, instead of dragging ourselves out of bed in the pitch dark for traditional school/work hours.

Stress management – It was a lot to handle. It’s still a lot to handle. Self-care and finding outlets that worked made such a difference.

Mental health – We all had someone we worried about (or maybe worried about ourselves). We thought more about signs and symptoms that would be areas for concern and purposefully sought ways to help.

Communication – Video meetings and classes brought out all the nuances of respectful communication, as did the difficulties of quarantining with our families.

Connection – Massive amounts of time with our families resulted in deeper connections over puzzles, board games, baking, and family movies. It was the connection that made the activities special. And connections with people outside our bubbles were treasured gifts!

Advocacy – Many systemic health and education issues and disparities were brought to the forefront. There was renewed purpose in fighting for the things we cared about, but also doing it in a way that would lead others to join us.

Quality health education in all schools is essential. Every one of these lessons learned in recent months is taught, explored, and practiced in health class. And a qualified, effective health education teacher gets an entire school community to improve their health knowledge, skills, and behaviors. Not just during a pandemic, but always.

Please keep in mind throughout planning and reopening, the upcoming school year (whatever that may look like), and the years ahead: students must be educated to be healthy, and healthy to be educated.

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