On 19 March, two weeks after South Africa recorded its first case of Covid-19, the country’s schools closed. Thanks to technology, however, children’s learning didn’t stop. Teachers adapted, taking classroom lessons online as tutorials, SMS messages and audio files.

Alongside reading, writing and arithmetic, the Department of Basic Education also put a firm focus on the continued delivery of the Life Skills curriculum and the need to instil daily healthy hygiene habits.

Tackling the No.1 cause of absenteeism

Since 2017, Unilever has worked with the government department to deliver weekly lessons as part of a National Schools Hygiene and Sanitation programme. Its target is to reach South Africa’s 1 million Grade 1 learners across 15,000 schools every year.

Even before Covid-19, hygiene and sanitation-related illnesses were the No.1 cause of absenteeism in South African schools. In a younger age group, diarrhoea alone accounted for approximately 20% of deaths in children under five.

Unilever’s programme was created to address this issue. “We understand the role that hygiene plays in keeping children healthy and in school so that they can get the best possible start in life,” says Unilever Assistant Purpose Strategy and Partnerships Manager Masechaba Sekhitla.

Good hygiene lessons for staff and students

With the World Health Organization’s announcement that handwashing with soap and water was a key measure in reducing the risk of coronavirus infection, Unilever was asked by the South African government to extend the programme’s delivery from first grade students to all school grades. “It became imperative to instil this knowledge and make hygiene and health accessible to everyone,” Masechaba says. That meant Covid-19 education not just for students but for school staff too.

E-skilling maintenance teams to combat Covid-19

As part of its social mission Domestos works alongside school cleaners providing training programmes to keep services well maintained and operational.

In response to Covid-19, the team took the programme digital. “We worked with the Domestos brand team and the education department to disseminate a virtual training video and training manual. When delivered in-school, it reaches 500 schools each year; digitally, we will be able to reach 15,000 schools nationally,” says Masechaba.

Increasing the messaging around handwashing

The team then called on the help of Lifebuoy to shape the programme’s key Covid-19 handwashing messaging. “We used to teach the importance of five regular handwashing occasions which were: before breakfast; before lunch; before dinner; after using the loo; and keeping your whole body clean by bathing every day,” says Masechaba.

“In response to Covid-19, we increased handwashing occasions from five to ten, including: after coughing and sneezing; when caring for the sick; when hands are visibly dirty; after handling animals or animal waste; and after touching many surfaces other people had touched.

Moving lessons from in-class to online

With processes and messaging in place the job was now to reach a new bigger audience – targeting all school grades meant going from 1 million students to 12 million students, all at a time when the programme’s usual mode of in-class delivery was impossible because schools were closed.

“Our partnership with the Department of Basic Education enabled us to access TV, websites, digital and social media to put out hygiene education focused content, but we also had a strong digital e-learning tool to help us gain reach,” says Queen Mgobhozi, Unilever Purpose Strategy and Partnerships Lead.

Germ-busting gaming platform, Hygienica Castle

The platform lets children create their own hygiene superhero avatar and earn points towards fun rewards in exchange for completing a daily tick list of hygiene habits.

Gamifying home learning with Hygienica Castle

In late 2019, Unilever South Africa had developed and launched Hygienica Castle, a free online website using gamification to teach the programme’s handwashing, toilet and oral hygiene habits online.

The platform lets children create their own hygiene superhero avatar and earn points towards fun rewards in exchange for completing a daily tick list of hygiene habits. “We wanted to extend the programme’s learning into the home environment through a digital game for the whole family,” Queen explains.

During school closures, Hygienica Castle came into its own by ensuring that key lessons on daily handwashing were reaching children who were e-learning at home.

Children log on to complete gamified hygiene lessons and earn rewards for good hygiene behaviours. Both elements work together to ensure that habits such as handwashing after the toilet and teeth cleaning become part of a daily healthy routine.

Ensuring back to school is as safe as possible

As South African schools prepare to reopen their gates, their students’ health and safety remains front of mind.

All school grade children will continue to have lessons from Unilever’s National Schools Hygiene and Sanitation programme until the end of the year; Lifebuoy will donate an additional 1 million bars of soap to ensure daily handwashing is a priority and Domestos will continue to work with schools maintenance teams to keep school toilets and facilities safe and clean.

“Covid-19 saw our brands and schools programme team act quickly and an impactful way,” says Queen, “and we will continue collaborating and working as a team to drive purpose-led business growth while changing lives.”

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