The Covid-19 pandemic has caused unprecedented disruption for education and the wider world. With the end of the Easter holiday seeing the return of the last secondary school pupils in Scotland and Northern Ireland, most children in the UK have now returned to the classroom for at least the second time. Although the emotional impact of not being in the classroom has roused considerable debate, less attention has been paid to the emotional impact of their return to schools.
Some argue the pandemic has had a widespread and potentially permanent negative impact, while others believe we should not be promoting a victim mentality among children. A recent article in The Times questioned how much concern is too much concern for the ‘Covid generation.’ While the pandemic has not been an ideal nor enjoyable experience for most, the author claims the current sense of doom is demoralising and preventing the development of resilience. Equating the experience of today’s children to children during the Blitz, which saw the evacuation of over 3 million children from London under Operation Pied Piper, has been argued by some to be melodramatic, while others have claimed that the need to find the balance between safety and calm is not dissimilar.
One rule for them, another for us?
The rapid changing and often incongruent rules at the country level can be a real cause of stress, as observed in our UCL-Penn Global COVID Study. This is even truer of the rules pertaining to school closures and COVID safety guidelines, as reported by pupils. For example:
‘Assembly has been cancelled for today: they’re trying to limit large gatherings. They can’t stop the crowds in the stairwells and hallways though. If we’re going to spread the virus anywhere, it’s there… So much for no physical contact.’
Pupils are clearly aware that many of the rules of the outside world do not apply at school but were assured they were less likely to spread the virus. Any reassurance this gave in the first return to the classroom was obliterated by Boris Johnson’s January lockdown announcement: schools are safe for children but “act as vectors for transmission, causing the virus to spread between households.”
These ‘mixed messages’ left teachers and parents befuddled as they had to grapple with the uncertainties on their own, with a narrow miss of a revolt. The potential re-opening of schools saw head teachers taking legal action against the UK Department for Education and teaching unions advising their members not to return.
Are they ‘All in the same boat’?
Anecdotes from secondary school pupils suggest feelings about returning to school are mixed, for example:
“It’s exciting because you haven’t seen your friends in a while, and you get to learn more things, easier.”
“I, for the first two weeks or so, was stressed and scared on every way. Of course for others they may have enjoyed it. But I was fearful and stressed.”
A similar lack of uniformity can be observed among their views about how the pandemic has impacted their families:
‘It hasn’t really effected me.’
‘It has made me more anxious and reclusive to some extent. However, it’s given me the opportunity to see my family more and grow closer to them, which is nice.’
‘Have had a parent completely shut down mentally.’
‘Less patient with each other.’
‘Higher stress and tension in my family. I’ve become much more anxious.’
‘More stress and anxiety. There are way more anger explosions and it’s harder to control our anger.’
Their accounts suggest all children are not ‘in the same boat’ in terms of the emotional impact of the pandemic. This appears to be true both in terms of individual experience and the exacerbated wellbeing issues amongst those already disadvantaged. While some will be relatively unaffected, treating some children ‘as though their granny had just died’ may be entirely appropriate, because for many that has been their reality.
So what support do pupils need to thrive?
At a recent public engagement event, 14–18-year-olds from a secondary school in the US told us how they would like to be supported:
‘More patience and grace from others.’
‘More understanding from everyone.’
‘Time away from school and understanding.’
‘I feel like schools should provide an outlet for students to possibly vent. I also believe there should be a lot more understanding with others.’
‘Others to be more understanding and patient due to everybody being in the same situation.’
‘I think emotional support is needed to thrive and recover from the pandemic as there should be time and patience given to others when they are not feeling emotionally stable.’
‘Period of time in the day where one can get away from the computer and refresh.’
The dominant theme of their responses is the need for understanding. It is clear that whilst pupils will have had very different individual experiences of the pandemic and learning from home, preceding with understanding and patience appears to be the favoured strategy to help pupils settle back into the classroom.
In sum, there are many factors that should be acknowledged when considering how the return to the classroom has impacted pupils. Mixed government messages on the safety of schools have caused confusion and concern; children have had contrasting experiences during the past year with mixed feelings and thoughts about what schools should do to best support them here onwards. One universal strategy for aiding this return is increasing understanding of others, a mindset that everyone should adopt on returning to the classroom.