Students Returning to School will Require Significant Emotional Support

The usual back to school September pressures are slightly different to a pencil case re-stock this year. Lockdown for some meant long walks, whipped coffee and Zoom quizzes. For others the living room doubled up as the classroom, and parents and carers across the country doubled up as teachers. With Boris Johnson recently urging that “absolutely every pupil needs to be back in school,” the return to education for primary, secondary and higher education students across the UK after almost 6 months is this week finally a reality. However, the return is expected to present some major challenges to students’ wellbeing and mental health.

One concern is that some children may not return at all. A new poll from the leading national children’s charity Barnardos suggests hundreds and thousands of children will refuse to return to education, and for those who do, they will require significant emotional support to deal with the effects of the Coronavirus pandemic.

Barnardo’s YouGov poll (which asked 4230 adults in total) indicated almost a quarter of UK parents of children aged 18 and under surveyed (23%) say that their children are nervous about going back to the classroom, and 4% say their children are refusing to return. Barnardo’s Chief Executive, Javed Khan, has said that “the pandemic and lockdown have been hugely traumatic for young people – separation from friends, anxiety about the virus and financial pressures at home have taken a serious toll on their mental health.”

The concerns are similar for higher education. In a ‘Save the Student’ survey, where 2,185 students were asked about the impact of the pandemic on higher education, 30% said they are more worried about their studies and grades than catching the virus itself, as well as 60% of respondents noting they have felt detriments to their mental health. 

Image Credit: Save The Student

This data implies the need for expansive and accessible support systems within the education environment. Although many students will have grappled with the loss of loved ones, the more nuanced challenges some students and children faced throughout lockdown, that are expected to come to light on the return to education, include exposure to domestic violence, poverty and abuse. Javed Khan reiterates “lockdown has been especially hard for vulnerable children who are now facing not only an ‘attainment gap’ but also a ‘trauma gap’ compared to their classmates.”

The support for students in schools will also require high levels of cultural awareness, as existing socio-economic inequalities translates to children and students from BAME groups being at greater risk from coronavirus and its impact (Runnymede Trust).

So, how are schools and universities planning on managing this new normal and ensuring students can access support services with ease?

Barnardo’s says it is vital for all schools to be allowed to have a “readjustment period” of at least a term where teachers can prioritise staff and pupil wellbeing, instead of being back to ‘business as usual’ from day one. The charity has also launched a ‘See, Hear, Respond’ initiative funded by the Department of Education to help those who are experiencing harm and increased adversity during coronavirus by providing support to those who are not being seen by schools or other key agencies. For children at primary and secondary, mood tracking and gentle encouragement to speak up if they are struggling is suggested to be introduced, alongside the availability of trained therapists to work alongside students.

What about for students returning to higher education? Universities Minister Michelle Donelan answered some FAQs on the impact of Coronavirus on higher education on the government’s Department for Education’s blog. Donelan emphasised that “the Government has told Vice-Chancellors to prioritise this and many universities are bolstering their existing mental health services and adapting them in the absence of face-to-face support.”

The Office for Students published its briefing notes following its regulatory guidance from April 2020, which looks “at the ways in which universities and colleges are supporting the mental health needs of their students during the outbreak”. The support moving forward includes clear communications, adapting wellbeing support to meet the needs of students and tailoring support to help vulnerable and bereaving students, including those from BAME backgrounds. It also highlights the importance of adapting support to online services for students with existing mental health conditions and new students arriving to University this year.

For more information on support specifically offered by Leeds Uni, please see here.

If you, a sibling, family member or someone you know requires support, please see the resources below.

Image Credit: Education Endowment Foundation