​The challenge facing schools and pupils

6th Aug 2020
Available in 2 languages

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

As teachers and school leaders, you will know the complex and traumatic experiences your pupils may be dealing with because of the pandemic. This guide outlines and emphasises the need for patience, flexibility and support for staff managing the return to school and the transitions between imposed restrictions. 

Although we have limited experience and evidence in responding to this unique situation, the evidence suggests that the need for pastoral support, safeguarding and wellbeing services in schools is increasing. Some of the challenges are outlined below.

Loss and bereavement

Some children and young people will have lost friends and family due to coronavirus or other illnesses during the pandemic. Even more, will be aware of a relative or friend being seriously unwell or hospitalised. For other young people, there will be other types of loss – for example, parents who were furloughed or lost their job, moving home and/or school, or have experienced long-term isolation from important people in their life such as grandparents. 

Whatever the type of loss, many will be experiencing this with a sense of grief. How children and young people respond to those feelings of loss and grief will be widely different – some may seem sad or withdrawn, and others may appear irritable or angry.  

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

This will have been disrupted or cancelled for children and young people receiving support for mental and physical health problems before the pandemic. The loss of an important source of support may mean children and young people with pre-existing conditions are struggling. A 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 with various health conditions.

Challenging experiences at home

Many children and young people already experience challenging home environments. These circumstances may have been amplified by the measures in place to control the pandemic. Others will be facing difficult home experiences for the first time. Among others, these might include: 

  • 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. Still, with domestic violence charity Refuge reporting a 700% increase in calls to their helpline, significantly increased pastoral care resources will be required beyond the pandemic.


A key challenge for schools is identifying the different experiences of their pupils and responding to the volume of safeguarding concerns that are likely to arise as pupils begin to open up to their teachers. Given the nature of the coronavirus pandemic, it’s important to remember that these concerns could arise with 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 is a challenge in itself. Inequalities experienced, particularly during the weeks of school closure, will be felt for the foreseeable future, as gaps in attainment and physical and emotional health will have widened. For example, Natural England revealed clear inequalities for children engaging with nature, with 71% of children from ethnic minority backgrounds reporting spending less time outside since coronavirus compared with 57% of white children. Planning to provide extra academic and pastoral support will be needed.


The sudden and often inconsistent changes we have experienced during the pandemic have led to many children and young people feeling uncertain. Many pupils worry that things that used to feel safe and predictable, such as school, may no longer be something they can rely on.

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

Due to a potential lack of confidence among young people in how adults have dealt with the pandemic, they will be feeling uncertain about measures the school and community are taking to keep them safe. Regular coronavirus testing could cause pupils to feel anxious and distracted.

There will also be a great deal of uncertainty for parents and caregivers. Many families will deal with different systems and guidelines as different measures are announced. The impact of further outbreaks on parents’ income and pupils’ attendance at school will be a source of worry for many families.


As pupils’ education continues to be affected by the pandemic, with various restrictions in place, the usual preparation for pupils moving to the next school term or year will be lacking. This will be particularly challenging for those moving from primary to secondary school, those moving into exam years and those preparing to leave 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 are approaching the end of their time at school – whether they are considering a move to college or university or looking for work – the effect of the virus and subsequent restrictions on admissions processes, exam procedures and employment prospects will be 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

With social distancing measures – in and outside school – friendships may have become strained or deteriorated. As peer groups are an important source of support for young people, this will mean that many will lack a vital source of support in managing the stresses of the pandemic. Many of us may be experiencing loneliness during this time, and children and young people may feel apprehensive about returning to school and reconnecting with their peers. Our Loneliness in Young People campaign, written with our MHF Young Leaders panel, provides tips for young people on what to do if they feel lonely.

The nature of the crisis itself – around a contagious disease – is an opportunity for bullying to arise. Social distancing and handwashing measures may still be necessary for some time and could fuel bullying around the potential for infection. It is important to be aware of the rise in incidents of racism around coronavirus. Pupils from Asian backgrounds may have experienced racism and bullying about the perceived origin of the virus in China.

Safer at home

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


Check out the rest of our guide on returning to school after lockdown

Read the guide now

Illustration of COVID virus over the UK

How to look after your mental health during the coronavirus outbreak

We have created a COVID-19 resources hub to give helpful tips and advice across all our nations that we hope will help you, your friends, and your family to look after your mental health.

Illustration of a light bulb on a teal background

Mental health A-Z

Explore our A to Z topics on mental health, where you can find more information on specific mental health problems and some of the things that can have an impact –good and bad – on our mental health.