Back to school: Advice for education professionals

Last reviewed on 30 August 2021

You have played a crucial role during the COVID-19 pandemic by providing online lessons, keeping your classrooms open for vulnerable young people and the children of key workers, and enabling the full reopening of schools in March 2021.

As the Autumn term begins, it’s perfectly understandable that you might have mixed emotions but there is lots you can do to build your own resilience and that of your pupils and students – not least focusing on how excited many of them are about getting back to some kind of normality and remembering how much progress has been made with the rollout of the vaccine programme.

Keeping children and young people safe remains a priority for everyone who works in education. As we learn to live with the COVID-19 virus, extra measures are still required to reduce the risk of infection in your community. You might also need to provide additional mental wellbeing support to the students in your care.

Here at Good Thinking, London’s digital mental wellbeing service, we’ve been providing mental health advice throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. In this article, we offer a series of tips to help you prepare for the Autumn term and provide links to other useful resources. You can also find NHS-approved wellbeing apps for adults (e.g. Be Mindful, MyCognition PRO and tomo) and young people (e.g. Feeling Good Teens and Move Mood) on Good Thinking.

As it says on the UK Government website, “...the overwhelming majority of children and young people still have no symptoms or very mild illness only.” Although the clinical risks of COVID-19 to children remain low, nurseries, schools and colleges will continue to maintain certain safety measures in the new term to reduce transmission of the virus.

‘Bubbles’ to minimise mixing are no longer compulsory and students won’t have to wear a face covering in the classroom or communal areas (although it is still recommended that they do). Nurseries, schools and college will focus on maintaining good hygiene and keeping spaces well ventilated. 16 and 17-year-olds have been offered the vaccine and regular testing remains important in reducing the risk of infection.

After much disruption to the assessment process for GCSEs, A Levels and other qualifications in 2020 and 2021, it is the government’s intention that exams will go ahead as normal this academic year. There is also funding available to help young people catch up on learning lost during the pandemic (e.g. for extra tuition).

Find out more on the UK Government and DfE websites.

Stress is a perfectly normal reaction to a potential threat (it prepares you for ‘fight or flight’). If your mind is full of worries about COVID-19 and the start of the new term, it can be helpful to focus on something you can control – this could be as simple as making a cup of tea or calling a friend.

When you’re feeling stressed, it can also help to write your concerns down and work out what steps you could take to make things better. If you’re experiencing information overload about COVID-19, could you limit your news and social media intake? If you’re unsure of the new safety measures at your school or college, might a phone chat with your line manager or headteacher be useful?

Read Good Thinking’s advice about stress.

Try to eat healthily, stay hydrated, get some fresh air and exercise regularly. One of the most important things you can do right now is get enough sleep as sleep deprivation can make you feel more anxious and sensitive to threats.

It remains an unsettling time for everyone so try to create a sense of calm and safety and encourage your colleagues to talk openly about how they are feeling. If you are a senior member of staff, check on your team members’ wellbeing regularly and offer a safe space for them to talk. It’s really important that everyone feels valued as they return to work.

Read Good Thinking’s advice about healthy eating, nature and sleep and take a look at our article about Psychological First Aid and other coping techniques.

Every child’s experience of the COVID-19 pandemic will be different. Some students thrived with home schooling; others fell behind. Children with difficult home situations, those on the autism spectrum, young carers and those who have lost a loved one to the virus might find the start of term particularly challenging.

A recent survey by The Student Room (5 July - 1 August 2021) revealed that lack of motivation, friendship worries and uncertainty about the future are the main things impacting young people’s mental health right now. Whilst some of your pupils or students are feeling anxious or stressed about going back to school, others are excited and keen to get started.

Supporting your students’ mental health should be a priority as you help them transition back to nursery, school or college. Get input from your Mental Health Lead then try to assess your students’ personal needs so you can help them get back to formal learning and interacting with others. Could you spend some time asking your class (and individuals) how they are feeling about being back at school? What are they looking forward to? Do they have any specific worries about returning to the classroom?

You might find Healthy London Partnership’s Mental Health in Schools Toolkit useful. If any of your students feel extremely distressed and you're worried that they might not be able to keep themselves safe, please direct them to their local 24/7 NHS mental health helpline – you can find contact details in this article.

COVID-19 has put many additional pressures on education professionals and you might still be feeling overwhelmed. Be open with your family, friends, colleagues and line manager about how you’re feeling and let them know how they can support you (and how you will support them).

As the new term begins, you might be worried about the risk to your own health from coronavirus, particularly if you have an underlying health condition or if you live with a vulnerable person. If you have previously experienced stress, burnout, anxiety or another mental health condition, you might be especially apprehensive about returning to work.

If you’d like to speak to someone in confidence about any concerns you might have, Education Support runs a helpline for education professionals on 08000 562 561. Alternatively, you can text KEYWORKER to 85258 to get 24/7 support from a trained crisis volunteer.

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