Last reviewed 8 February 2021

An early controlled return to education settings seemed possible at the close of 2020 but new Covid-19 variants have dashed that hope. When the third lockdown will end in 2021 is still unclear. Meanwhile, mental health has become a major health and safety issue. Jon Herbert reports.

In an ordinary year, schools could expect to focus on preventing “slips and trips”, basic health and safety checklists, incident-free away-days, hiring out facilities safely, and perhaps clean air issues.

Covid-19 has made firm planning impossible for the foreseeable future, although there is optimism that vaccines, good hygiene practice and social distancing will begin to contain the pandemic.

Looking ahead

What are the current options for schools, early years and college planners? Keeping a step ahead of immediate uncertainties while trying to be ready for any swift return is one strategy.

But as the crisis continues, the mental health of thousands of pupils and staff locked down at home is a growing concern.

It may be helpful to review briefly the problems that schools, staff members and students now face, followed by an updated summary of recent DfE health and safety advice.

However, an introduction to some of the mental health advice and resources available on online might be particularly useful at this point.

Many happy and safe returns?

The problem for heads and their teams is that evidence suggests it is much easier to close schools down than reopen them when parents and teachers need to be persuaded that a return is really safe.

Although vulnerable pupils and children of key workers have been in class, a majority of pupils have not been back to school in 2021.

Continuing uncertainty means that they may have to learn from home until at least early March and potentially even later. The aim is to give parents and staff a two-week notice period.

The indications are that a return may well be staggered rather than a single starting date depending on local infection levels.

Meanwhile, teaching unions and some MPs have called for a pathway if not a firm date for education to resume, perhaps with priority inoculations for staff and more infection testing in schools.

An Office for National Statistics survey also suggests that teachers are not at a significantly higher risk than the general population.

What next?

While waiting, school could have two priorities.

The first is to continue implementing evolving Department for Education (DfE) safety guidance (https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/coronavirus-covid-19-maintaining-further-education-provision).

The other is to consider mental health options - from qualified expert advice to medical interventions – and particularly a surge in issues that are likely to arise once young people reconnect with school communities after months in lockdown.

Updated DfE advice

Full details of DfE guidance can be seen on the above website. A summary of key changes includes advice for pregnant staff; new information on tier 4 restrictions; and Covid-19 asymptomatic testing.

More generally, the guidance explains what further education (FE) and skills providers in England need to know to help students of all ages – with actions needed to stay as safe as possible.

Schools and staff must try to ensure that all students benefit in full from their education and training. They must also follow the system of controls set out to minimise coronavirus risks in every setting and work with local authorities to contain local outbreaks.

The intended audience is leaders and staff in: - sixth form colleges; general FE colleges; independent training providers; designated institutions; adult community learning providers; and special post-16 institutions.

Mental health concerns

The NHS provides online guidelines for good mental health and specific signs to watch for. Other expert sources are available. It is important to remember that professional medical help may be needed.

Support and advice for parents and carers worried about a child’s mental health or wellbeing is outlined at https://www.nhs.uk/using-the-nhs/nhs-services/mental-health-services/cypmhs-information-for-parents-and-carers/ with additional general advice at https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/stress-anxiety-depression/.

The Mental Health Foundation

The Mental Health Foundation is part of the UK’s national mental health response during the coronavirus crisis. Its extensive advice is under constant review and varies with location (https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/coronavirus/returning-school-after-coronavirus-lockdown).

The foundation is concerned not only with the lockdown but also preparing for an eventual return to school. It notes that young peoples will have had very varied experiences. For some, lockdown will have been mostly safe and enjoyable time, for others challenging or traumatic.

The foundation’s website expert advice is very detailed and where relevant needs to be read in full; for brevity only introductory headings are given here.

Returning to school after lockdown

This part of its guidance outlines the scale of challenges schools and pupils face, plus practical advice, activities and support. Specifically, it looks at:

Additional issues and more details

The foundation emphasises the need for patience, flexibility and support, with a greater than normal demand for pastoral support, safeguarding and wellbeing services. Key issues typically include:

Loss and bereavement - young people may have had relatives or friends who died, been seriously unwell or hospitalised. Other types of loss includes parents with furloughed or lost jobs, moving home or school, and long-term isolation from key people in their lives.

Many will experience this as grief. Their response may be sad or withdrawn, anxious or angry. Advice references are given on ‘loss and change’, ‘loss and grief specifically from a young person’s perspective’, plus a range of resources for schools and parents and guardians.

Pre-lockdown support for young people with mental and physical health problems will probably have been disrupted or cancelled. A recent found that 80% of young people with existing mental health problems thought these had worsened. Guidance sources are given.

  • Challenging home experiences – many young people in lockdown already have challenging home environments which may have deteriorated. Others faced them for the first time. This might include - domestic violence, abuse or neglect, family conflict, financial concerns, worries about relatives who are key workers, caring for family members, hunger and lack of nutrition, and insecure housing.

  • Inequalities – a key challenge will be identifying individual experiences and the sheer volume of safeguarding needs as children open up to their teachers. Any child could be affected.

  • Uncertainty - as regulations relax, pupils may be unclear about what they were allowed to do, and with whom. Some may worry they can no longer rely on things they previously felt safe and predictable, like school. Their confidence in adults may have slipped as the crisis bites deeper.

  • Transitions – to the next school year are in hiatus; there are also problems for those starting school, moving from primary to secondary school, and leaving school for work, college or university.

  • Friendships and bullying – may be affected by extra strains after a long break in relationships and normal peer groups, plus an over-reliance on social media communication.

  • Safer at home - for some children school does not feel like a safe place and lockdown will have been a welcome respite. Returning to school could be a source of stress.

Help for teaching staff

Teachers need additional practical tool and strategies the Mental Health Foundation says to help rebuild relationships and support pupils. It highlights the following points:

  • One size will not fit all - different pupils within the same class will have had very different experiences and have varying levels of coping skills and resilience in dealing with them.

  • You are part of a team - some challenges may feel overwhelming but other teachers in schools, communities and around the world face the same issues.

  • Your team is wider than your school community - other agencies, third sector organisations and community groups can provide support too.

  • Different emotional responses - children and young people will respond in different ways to challenging experiences and show different kinds of emotional responses, often from day-to-day.  

  • Don’t dismiss concerning behaviour – it is tempting to see everything in a simple context when more serious issues are manifested in changes such as significant weight changes, prolonged tiredness, out of character angry outbursts, secretive behaviour and signs of self-harm.

  • Learning may have to wait - jumping straight back into learning might be difficult as a disrupted ability to focus is a common experience following bereavement or trauma. Unstructured time can be a problem. Working through these conversations could be helpful, particularly for exam year pupils.

  • Attachments have been disrupted – and are relevant throughout our lives. If strained, disrupted or suspended, children and young people could experience emotional distress. Rebuilding relationships, in class as, say, tutor groups, or during one-to-one time, is advised.

  • Trauma – time may be needed to listen, process and understand what has happened, to grieve losses, and work together to find a way to move forward in a supportive environment.

Practical tools, strategies and activities

The foundation also suggests pragmatic steps forward:

  • Acknowledging what has happened - dwelling on the past may not be helpful but a balance is needed between the enormity of what has happened and the future. Resources in several languages are recommended for early years, primary and secondary schools.

  • Let them talk – a return to school may be the first real contact pupils have had with each other for weeks or months and they may have lots of thoughts and questions. Gradually phasing in lessons balanced with creative and vocational activities could be one approach.

  • Individual opportunities to talk - will help some pupils to reconnect. A chance to talk to staff members individually will be important to others. Children may start to talk about a topic, stop, and resume again later. Asking open questions may help.

  • Being positive - focusing on strong future relationships confidently may alleviate some pupil worries. Ways of initiating discussions that recognise the past but also look forward, for example, to more walking and cycling in a more sustainable world, could be important to many young minds.

  • Building connections – many young people may have lost their sense of belonging. Activities that engage the whole class – or school – could help to rebuild this. 

  • Looking to the arts – may to help to express the feelings young people struggle to put into words - music, visual art and drama.

  • Being mindful - mindfulness skills can help to manage stray feelings and help to focus on what is happening right now.

Tips for parents and caregivers to prepare children for the return 

Practical guidance is also given for those in close one-to-one contact with anxious children.

  • Start talking - worries about returning to school can be reduced through a number of helpful resources.

  • Sleep routine – encouraging normal sleep patterns in the weeks before school starts again is strongly recommended.

  • Talk about school – talking through the normally familiar daily routine can help to smooth out lurking worries and anxieties.

  • Coping strategies – methods to defuse stresses, such as reconnecting with friends, exercise and breathing techniques, can help staff members and parents prepare for a new normality.

  • Make yourself available as much as possible - children may want to “debrief” when not expected. Creating opportunities to talk - such as walking or baking together - can be more informal than sitting face-to-face.

  • Look at the positives – looking forward to things - favourite shops reopening, seeing friends in the park or buying an ice cream - is therapeutic.

Looking after your mental health as a teacher

Advice is also given to help teaching staff members cope and prepare.

  • Planning in time for the things that help you – such as lifting your mood and working through stress with exercise, face-to-face online time with friends, or protected family time.

  • Keeping up with the basics – that keep you going, such as eating well, sleeping enough and moderating caffeine and alcohol intake. Give yourself small rewards!

  • Sharing how you're feeling with people you trust - who you can be honest and open with - partners, friends and close colleagues – who can help in different ways.

  • Sharing how you're feeling with your manager – who is a valuable member of your personal support team; your conversations may mirror your approach to pupil issues.

  • Keeping things in perspective – in this period of adjustment no-one is a superhero - don’t try to over-reach yourself.

  • Small moments for yourself – keeping in touch with your feelings and personal issues is important. Distraction techniques - five minutes of lunch peace, meditation, or a moment of fresh air – can help. 

Summary

As the pandemic crisis accelerates in a race alongside the delivery of effective vaccines with the possibility of an extended lockdown, schools face an uncertain future in terms of a safe return to classrooms in 2021.

While the Government has updated aspects of its health and safety advice, greater concern is now being focussed on the mental health of pupils, staff and school leaders at present and particularly when they do eventually return to the classroom.

Additional mental health resources from the NHS (https://www.nhs.uk/using-the-nhs/nhs-services/mental-health-services/cypmhs-information-for-parents-and-carers/ and https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/stress-anxiety-depression/), the Mental Health Foundation, and updates to DfE guidance will all be useful.