Sept. 11, 2020

Pandemic puts health on the agenda at schools

A positive upshot of COVID-19 may be an amplification of focus on kids’ overall health and wellness in education systems

Days into the new school year, mask-wearing, cohorts, and distance between desks are, if not the most popular subjects with kids, certainly dominant educational points. Indeed, never has the topic of health carried such weight in schools. Counselling psychologist in the Werklund School of Education, Dr. Shelly Russell-Mayhew, PhD’03, hopes this new focus on our kids’ physical and mental well-being continues to hold significant space in our educational systems long after COVID times.

Russell-Mayhew is a professor and director of Werklund’s unique Body Image Research Lab. Her research focuses on eating-related issues, and their prevention via the promotion of mental health, wellness and resiliency in schools. In short, she strives to improve children’s physical and mental health through increased collaboration with policy-makers and community partners, particularly schools.

Shelly Russell-Mayhew

Shelly Russell-Mayhew studies weight-related issues.

Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

With Russell-Mayhew’s involvement, Werklund has been leading the way in a potential societal shift that puts health more prominently on the educational agenda. The faculty was the first of its kind in Canada to offer a mandatory course in elementary and secondary education in comprehensive school health and wellness for all Bachelor of Education students. She is anticipating that the pandemic may afford opportunities to learn more about the effectiveness of an increasingly comprehensive health education.

“I study weight-related issues but I think the way to address these or any health issues is to take a broader promotion in schools,” says Russell-Mayhew. “If we ask the right questions now — with intention, compassion and courage — we can re-prioritize the value that we place on well-being.”

Russell-Mayhew says it’s already become clear to her through the community’s response to sending kids back to school that social connection is foundational to well-being. “We crave those connections and positive moments,” she says.

When you read what’s going on around the world right now with back-to-school or talk to teachers and to students, we learn that what they missed most about school was each other.

That awareness puts a spotlight on schools that goes beyond academics, says Russell-Mayhew. She hopes we take the opportunity sparked by COVID to “broaden our thinking about the benefits of school to our children.” While her own research and teacher training have long set out to prepare teachers to serve as allies for kids in creating healthy learning environments, the pandemic has offered greater, more visible opportunity — and daunting challenge — for teachers having to be champions for kids’ health.

They need to be supported in those efforts, says Russell-Mayhew, which is where Werklund’s recently launched Comprehensive School Health Hub is more valuable than ever. The Canada-wide online resource, created in partnership with the non-profit Ever Active Schools, offers free post-secondary and K-12 resources and training, with a goal to better prepare not only teachers, but also educational assistants, principals and trustees with the knowledge, skills and attitudes they need to help promote and create healthy learning environments.

The question Russell-Mayhew hopes we begin actively asking in our city and province is, "What do we value as a community?” The answer, she hopes, is “to go beyond avoiding COVID, and to be well in all the ways of wellness: emotionally intellectually and socially.” That she says, is the path to success and health for our students and our communities.

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