​The challenge facing schools and pupils

Page last reviewed: 4 August 2020

The Mental Health Foundation is part of the national mental health response during the coronavirus outbreak. Government advice designed to keep us safe is under constant review and will be different depending on where you live: more details and up to date information here.

This section of our guide on returning to school after the coronavirus lockdown breaks down a range of challenges for schools and pupils. 

As teachers and school leaders, you will likely be aware of the complex and traumatic experiences that their pupils may have had during the lockdown period. However, it is worth laying out the full range of challenges schools face as pupils return, to underscore the need for patience, flexibility and support for the staff managing the transition back to school. 

Although we have limited experience and evidence in responding to a situation of this magnitude, the evidence we do have suggests that when schools reopen, the need for pastoral support, safeguarding and wellbeing services will be high. Some of the particular challenges are outlined in more detail below: ​

Loss and bereavement

Some children and young people will have relatives or friends who have died during the lockdown, due to coronavirus or other illnesses. Still more will have been aware of a relative or friend being seriously unwell or hospitalised. For other young people, there will have been other types of loss – for example, parents who have been furloughed or lost their job, a home and/or school move, or they may have experienced long-term isolation from important figures in their life such as grandparents.  

Regardless of the type of loss, many will be experiencing this with a sense of grief. The way that children and young people respond to those feelings of loss and grief will differ widely – some may seem sad or withdrawn, others may appear anxious or angry.  

Some useful resources on bereavement, loss and grief are listed below: 

  • Our piece on loss and change provides some advice for managing difficult feelings 

For children and young people who were receiving support for mental and physical health problems, this will likely have been disrupted or cancelled. This loss of an important source of support may mean children and young people with pre-existing conditions are struggling. A recent survey from Young Minds showed that 80% of young people with an existing mental health problem felt their mental health had worsened during the first weeks of the coronavirus pandemic. Our piece on living with pre-existing mental health problems during COVID-19 provides advice on how to look after yourself during this time. 

The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health have guidance on supporting children and young people living with a range of health conditions.  

Challenging experiences at home

Many children and young people entered lockdown in already challenging home environments. These challenging circumstances will likely have been amplified by families being quarantined at home together. Others will have faced these challenging experiences for the first time. These might include, but are not limited to: 

  • Domestic violence 

  • Abuse or neglect 

  • Family conflict 

  • Financial concerns, e.g. loss of employment for parents and guardians 

  • Worry about relatives who are key workers and continuing to work 

  • Caring responsibilities for family members 

  • Hunger and lack of nutrition 

  • Insecure housing, e.g. those living in residential care, hostels or refuges.

The scale of the challenge isn’t yet clear, but with domestic violence charity Refuge reporting a 700% increase in calls to their helpline and 900 counselling calls to ChildLine about coronavirus made before mid-March, it is likely that significantly increased pastoral care resources will be required well beyond the initial return to school process.   

Inequalities

A key challenge as schools open again will be identifying what children’s’ experiences of lockdown have been and the volume of safeguarding concerns that are likely to arise as children begin to open up to their teachers.  Given the nature of the coronavirus pandemic, it’s important to remember that these concerns could arise in relation to any child, not just those previously identified as vulnerable, and that many children will have had a range of challenging experiences.   

The vast range of experiences that children and young people have had during lockdown is a challenge in itself. Inequalities experienced during the weeks of school closure will be felt for the foreseeable future, as gaps in attainment, physical and emotional health will have widened. Planning to provide extra academic, as well as pastoral support will be needed. 

Uncertainty

The sudden and unprecedented changes that the lockdown imposed on everyone are likely to have left many children and young people feeling uncertain. As regulations have been relaxed gradually, pupils may have felt unclear about what they were allowed to do, and with whom.  

Some young people will feel concerned about the possibility of a second lockdown, others may worry that things which used to feel safe and predictable, such as school, may no longer be something they can rely on. 

There may be a lack of confidence amongst young people in the adults in their lives. As they have seen adults struggle to agree about how to manage the crisis, their sense that they can rely on adults to keep them safe may have been diminished.  

There may also be a great deal of uncertainty for parents. Many families will be navigating a lot of different systems and guidelines as they return to school and work. The impact of further outbreaks on parents’ income and pupils’ attendance at school will be a source of worry for many families.  

Transitions

As the lockdown period the lockdown period has extended across the end of term and into the summer holidays, the usual preparation that would be done with all pupils for their transition to the next school year will be lacking. This will be particularly challenging for children who were starting school, moving from primary to secondary school, and those who are leaving school.  

Read more information and access resources to support pupils during transition periods on the Mentally Healthy Schools website and from the Anna Freud Centre.

For those who were approaching the end of their time at school – whether they were awaiting transitions to college or university or looking for work –  the impact of the virus and lockdown period on admissions processes, exam results and employment prospects remains unclear, and many pupils are likely to worry about their future.  

Our guidance for young people, written with our MHF Young Leaders panel has specific advice for school leavers.  

Friendships and bullying

Over a lengthy period of social distancing, friendships many have become strained or deteriorated. Many young people will have communicated with friends over social media, while others will have had little contact with their peers. As peer groups are an important source of support for young people, this may mean that many will have lacked a vital source of support in managing the stresses of the lockdown period.  

The nature of the crisis itself – around a contagious illness – is a potent opportunity for bullying to arise. Social distancing and handwashing measures are likely to still be necessary for some time and could provide fuel for bullying around potential “contagion”. It is important to be aware of the rise in incidences of racism around coronavirus. Pupils from Asian backgrounds may well have experienced racism and bullying about the perceived origin of the virus in China. 

Safer at home

For some children and young people, unfortunately, school does not feel like a safe place to be and the lockdown will have been a welcome respite. For these pupils, the challenge of returning will not be what has happened whilst school was closed but the prospect of coming back. This may particularly be the case for pupils with physical and learning difficulties, whose needs may be more easily met at home.