Most children experienced an initial “euphoria” at being back in the classroom after nine weeks at home, teachers said. But school staff have noticed increasing numbers showing signs of anxiety as they let their guards down and the full impact of the lockdown emerges.
Schools reopened to all pupils on March 8 after being closed since January. It was the second mass school closure following a shutdown for most pupils from March until June last year.
Our Young London SOS campaign has highlighted the mental health crisis facing young people as a result of the pandemic.
Kate Bass, acting head of Mora primary school in Brent, said returning to school has been positive for the majority of pupils. When pupils first returned many were tired, groggy and used to snacking all day, but the routine of school has improved their stamina for learning.
But for vulnerable children who had been attending school throughout the pandemic and benefitting from smaller, quieter classes, the transition has been tough. And children who are scared of the virus and felt safer in lockdown are struggling.
Ms Bass said: “As a direct result of the pandemic, children’s anxiety is heightened. If something hasn’t gone right in the morning they might not want to go into school. Or if something hasn’t gone right at school they don’t want to go home. We have had to put specific support in place for those children.”
She added: “We will be picking up the pieces of this for a very long time.”
Psychologist Maryhan Baker said figures suggest five children in every class in every school have a mental health problem. She warned that it takes ten years on average from experiencing the first mental health symptom to accessing adequate support and said more needs to be done to stop the effects of lockdown harming children for the long term.
Teachers at Surrey Square primary school in Elephant and Castle regularly measure the anxiety levels of their pupils. In January this year 22 pupils scored highly for anxiety, while in March the number had increased to 33.
Headteacher Nicola Noble said: “We have to be careful about crudely saying ‘we are back at school so everything’s better.’
“Some children’s problems will only be showing up now because they feel safe to show up now.”
Ms Noble said children’s wellbeing is her priority, rather than academic catchup. She has introduced wellbeing journals for pupils, “joy time” where they play games with teachers to help them reconnect, and up to 12 pupils every week are given one-to-one counselling with Place2Be counsellors.
She said: “My worry is that schools focus on children’s wellbeing for a few weeks and then crack on with business as normal. We are not seeing that – yes there were some children right at the beginning who needed help, but it is continuing.
“The effects of trauma can show up immediately, after a week, a month or even a year. What we want to do is make sure we are not leaving a drain on the mental health system in the next five to 15 years’ time with a load of children whose trauma hasn’t been dealt with.”
“We are seeing lots of fallout now. Being able to meet up again is bringing up anxiety in some children.
“There are children who are struggling from a hygiene perspective with the concept of the virus. They felt safer in lockdown and now we are opening up again they are more anxious.”
She added that much of the support some families relied on such as furlough pay is starting to fall away, yet the demand for food packages is still high – the school sends out 200 packages a week.
At Mora primary school, Place2Be school counsellor Sandy Leslie now spends lunchtime in the playground so children can informally chat to him about their worries. He said: “Most children have been in very high spirits and enjoyed coming back to school. But we have definitely seen an increase in anxiety especially related to lockdown and Covid, even in very young children. There are issues like bereavement and relationship difficulties, online gaming addictions and digital poverty.”
Secondary school pupils have the additional stress of changes to GCSEs and A-Levels.
Ian Emerson, deputy head of Latymer Upper School, said: “On the face of it, it is good news - kids love being in school, seeing friends and socialising.
“But the pandemic has undoubtedly caused a lot of issues, anxiety, loss of confidence and we have seen a significant number of pastoral issues come to the fore, especially in exam year groups.
“Mental health remains a huge issue and a lot of this has to do with the uncertainty and lack of control kids have over their future. I have seen this with exam groups who have been up and down so many times this year, preparing for mocks, only to have them cancelled, and then the rules change. This causes anxiety and mental health issues.”
The department for education has announced £17million of funding to improve the mental health and well-being of pupils affected by the pandemic. The money will be used to train teachers to help children suffering from problems including trauma, anxiety and grief, and thousands of schools will be helped to appoint a ‘senior mental health lead.’
Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said the next few months will be crucial in supporting children’s mental health recovery from the pandemic.
Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, said: “Children are returning to school needing not just academic help, but a wide range of pastoral, mental health and wellbeing support too, all of which requires additional resources.”