What Keeps Kids in School

I remember our daughter’s first day of third grade, which was so long ago. During her entire second-grade year, we had walked hand in hand to the door of her classroom where I gave her a kiss. At the beginning of the new school year, she had this to say: “Daddy, you can’t kiss me at school anymore.” Her words, of course, broke my heart but also began her journey to becoming the strong, independent young woman she is today.

That all came to mind this week as I watch students in my community go back to school after their summer break. I hope they are excited about the experiences and learning ahead of them. I also hope they’re healthy.

We were fortunate. Our daughter was healthy throughout her school years. We took that for granted — poor health is one of the biggest obstacles to education. When children are sick, they can miss days or even weeks of school, making it difficult to learn.

Line-up for health and energy: The school nurse delivers the pill that destroys the parasites that sap children’s energy and health. Photo by Nana Kofi Acquah

In my many years of visiting impoverished communities around the world, I have seen too often how ill-health and lack of access to health products and services put children’s education at risk. I’ve participated in large de-worming projects to protect kids against intestinal parasites, which sap many of the strength to be present at school. I’ve seen communities without adequate clean water or sanitation, where diarrheal disease is a key factor in absenteeism. I’ve talked to families who have told me that lack of access to eyeglasses, feminine hygiene products or basic medicines have kept their children from fully engaging in the classroom — or even attending school.

That’s one reason I am excited about a program Americares launched in Mumbai, India, a few years ago focused on the health of school children. The school health program strives to change the health outcomes of 22,000 children across 76 municipal schools since 2015.

Her education includes the everyday health habits that will help her stay in school — more days, more years. Photo by William Vazquez

The program includes health education on topics such as personal hygiene, oral hygiene, hand hygiene, healthy eating habits, anemia, adolescent health and tobacco-related substance abuse. It involves screening and treating for anemia, vision defects and dental problems. Also, the Americares team has improved access to clean water and adequate sanitation facilities, benefiting more than 8,000 students across 20 municipal schools.

Navin is an 11-year-old student who complained of watery eyes and headaches and struggled to see the blackboard. The teachers found that he was a poor speller, unorganized and unable to read. But when Navin was screened by an Americares team for vision defects, health workers found the student had an eye condition called high myopic refractive error.

Fitted with the right glasses, Navin’s eyes were literally and figuratively opened to learning. His father added: “He’s playing his sports, having fun with his friends after wearing his new corrective glasses. It’s made a huge difference in his quality of life!”

Here’s to a healthy new school year for children, here at home and around the world.