Back to School During the Covid 19 Pandemic
This is a return to school unlike any other. You may be feeling ambivalent about what you are facing. It could be that you have concerns about your own health, or that you are caring for someone else with health challenges. Perhaps you are looking forward to the return to work and the opportunity to reconnect with the members of your school community. In this blog post we will look at some of the resources and practical supports available to support you and those in your school community as you return.
In February 2020 you may have experienced rising anxiety about Coronavirus. Cast your mind back to the yellow posters outlining hand washing procedures and the growing emphasis on coughing and sneezing into our elbows. You probably taught a lesson on singing the birthday song to accompany the hand washing procedure. More than likely you bought a bottle of hand sanitiser “just in case”. Maybe you felt a growing sense of unease commuting on public transport or gnawing anxiety as you listened to news reports. Perhaps you thought it would all blow over.
When the school closures were announced in March it’s unlikely that you anticipated that face-to-face teaching had ended for the 2019/2020 school year. No doubt you tried to quell your own anxiety as you sought to prepare work and reassure children and families that this would all be ok. Perhaps you worried about how the closure would impact on all members of the school community, particularly the more vulnerable in your care. None of us could have predicted how events would unfold.
The impact on the whole school community
As the school year progressed, you got to grips with online platforms and digital teaching and learning. You mastered Zoom and compiled long lists of useful websites for parents and guardians. You thought about the children who were missing milestones in their lives - Confirmations and Communions, School Tours, Sports Day, Graduation ceremonies. You wondered how children used to accessing therapeutic support for pre-existing physical and mental health challenges were coping. When you listened to news reports specific individuals came to mind - families with front-line workers or perhaps those facing job losses or financial uncertainty. You did all this while also trying to juggle your own concerns - perhaps looking after your own children or taking care of family members who were cocooning. Maybe part of you relished the opportunity to take life at a slower pace and to evaluate your lifestyle, while also acknowledging that this came at a cost.
The return to school brings with it a time of reflection on what we have all been through. The last six months have been different for everyone. The one thing that is certain is that things have changed. Perhaps a valued colleague has retired. Or there are children that you didn’t get to say goodbye to. You will face the task of helping everyone to get to grips with new guidelines and procedures.
You are aware that the children in your care will have had a range of responses to the school closures and that for those with already difficult home lives, such as conflict in the home, these challenges may have been amplified. Many children with additional needs will have missed the structure and routine that school provided and families have struggled to cope with the changes and loss of additional supports. For others who struggled with school, the closure may have offered respite. You know that many members of the community will be in need of support. Some will have faced bereavement or other types of loss.
Sharing differing experiences
With the return to school, there will be a need to process the impact of the closures. Children will need support to acclimatise to the pace of the school day. New entrants and those starting school will be in need of additional support. For others, you will need to help to foster coping skills and resilience. Many children will relish the opportunity to reconnect with friends. Some will have found the closures difficult as they may have been isolated from their peers and cherished family members. It’s important to check in with the children and to let them talk about their experiences. Story can be a useful medium to explore the sudden closure at a safe distance. This link features a range of therapeutic stories aimed at helping children to reflect on their experiences of the school closures and how they feel about the return to school.
For some, it may take time for them to open up. Young children may not be able to articulate how they are feeling. Think about common questions that are likely to concern them. For example, they may be fearful of further outbreaks. Respond to questions honestly. Some children may need access to the expressive arts such as music, visual arts and drama to process how they are feeling.
It’s important to focus on the reopening as a time for re-connection. Think about how you can build a sense of community and shared identity. It might be that you choose a class motto or create a visual reminder of belonging, such as displaying a poster including all members on the wall.
Here is a tool that explores how school communities can help everyone to process the significance of the school closures. It also features a wealth of resources and advice to support the wellbeing of all members of the school community.
Teaching coping skills and building resilience
Many children will need support in the area of mental and emotional wellbeing. Think about interventions you can weave into your practice to teach them coping skills and help to build their resilience. Strategies could include having a class worry box, teaching mindfulness practices or generating a bank of tools to try when they are feeling overwhelmed or anxious. This link from Relax Kids features two free resources which you may find helpful. The first resource is targeted at parents and guardians and gives them tools to support the child at home. The second resource is aimed at giving you tools to use in the classroom setting to help children to manage their emotions.
Access support and practice self-care
Pastoral care is not new territory for school communities. However, the scale of the challenge ahead means that you need to ensure that you are supported in your efforts. This might look like linking in with a trusted peer, debriefing after a challenging or emotive encounter, accessing additional training, flagging safeguarding issues and other concerns to management or contacting external agencies. Remember to look after your own wellbeing and take the time to engage in the self-care practices that are supportive for you. This link provides information and guidance on simple self-care strategies.
Marie O'Sullivan, Anokha Learning.
Marie O’Sullivan is a qualified teacher and counsellor with an M.Sc. in Child and Adolescent Counselling. She has worked in a diverse range of school settings and roles, including a Special School and as a HSCL. Marie is a Course Author with Anokha Learning and has facilitated workshops and training for school staff and corporate and community groups.