Back to school: Advice for education professionals

Updated on 1 September 2020

You have played a crucial role during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic by providing online lessons and keeping your classrooms open for vulnerable young people and the children of key workers.

With the return of all year groups in September, it’s understandable that you might have some concerns. In fact, a recent global survey by TES revealed that only 38% of teachers are looking forward to their school reopening.

In a statement on the 23rd of August, the UK Chief Medical Officers discussed the evidence of the risks and benefits to health from schools and childcare settings reopening.

Keeping children and young people safe is a priority for everyone who works in education – from early years to FE. In the COVID era, you will need to put extra measures in place to reduce the risk of coronavirus in your community and you should also be able to provide additional support for the wellbeing of the children in your care. According to a recent survey by YoungMinds, 80% of young people say that COVID-19 has made their mental health worse.

Although this is an uncertain time for everyone, there is lots you can do to build your own resilience and that of your pupils and students this Autumn – not least focusing on how excited many children and young people are about going back to nursery, school or college.

As Andrea Parker, Lead Headteacher at Bonneville Primary School in South London, blogged recently: “The best part of re-opening [to certain year groups last term] has been seeing the children’s reactions. They have been thrilled to see their friends and teachers, and you can tell it meant so much to them. I’ve been impressed by how understanding the pupils have been of the new measures: rigorous cleaning, newly arranged classrooms, staggered timetables and bubbles.”

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 reopening of your nursery, school or college and provide links to other useful resources. You can also find NHS-approved wellbeing apps, such as Be Mindful, MyCognition PRO and tomo, on Good Thinking.

The start of a new school year is often stressful but, this September, there are some additional pressures on education professionals. 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).

You might be worried about the risk to your own health, 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 the new term.

The UK Chief Medical Officers’ statement (23 August 2020) covers the potential health risk of COVID-19 to teachers and other school staff. 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.

Your nursery, school or college should have done a health and safety risk assessment and put protective measures in place, such as ‘bubbles’ of students and staggered start and finish times. If you work in a secondary school, your school can decide whether students have to wear face coverings in communal areas. If transmission of the virus is high in your local area (e.g. you are under ‘local lockdown’), face coverings should be worn by adults and pupils in communal areas in secondary schools.

The NHS Test and Trace service is available if anyone has symptoms of coronavirus and self-isolation guidelines should be followed.

Find out as much as you can about these measures so you know how to support your pupils, students and their families in this new environment – there are lots of useful links to further information at the end of this article.

Stress is a perfectly normal reaction to a potential threat (it prepares you for ‘fight or flight’). If your mind is full of worries now, 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, 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.

Read Good Thinking’s advice about healthy eating, nature and sleep.

Every child’s experience of lockdown will be different. Some children have thrived with home schooling; others have fallen 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. 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 pupils’ and students’ mental health should be a priority as you help them transition back to nursery, school or college. Try to assess everyone’s 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 found lockdown? Did they enjoy home schooling or was it difficult? What are they looking forward to? Do they have any specific worries about returning to the classroom?

Healthy London Partnership has recently updated its Mental Health in Schools Toolkit and you might also find this recording of a webinar about pupil and student wellbeing (Department for Education, Public Health England and NHS England – 9 July 2020) useful.

It’s 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.

Take a look at Good Thinking’s article about Psychological First Aid and other coping techniques.

Looking after the children in your care requires a whole school approach. Your line manager and headteacher are there to support you and, as part of the UK Government’s new Wellbeing for Education Return programme, your local authority will be providing mental health training for nominated staff from September.

Recognising that children from the most vulnerable and disadvantaged backgrounds are among the hardest hit by COVID-19, there is also a catch-up support package available for schools, which your headteacher will know more about.

If you have to take extra precautions personally because of COVID-19 (e.g. if you or someone in your family has an underlying health condition) or if you have lost a loved one, let your manager know so they can support you.

Useful Good Thinking resources

Anxiety quiz

Benefits of healthy sleep patterns (podcast)

Dealing with stress and trauma (podcast)

Education in the time of coronavirus (podcast)

Low mood quiz

Self-assessment

Sleep quiz

Stress quiz

Supporting students through coronavirus (podcast)

Other useful resources

Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families (Coronavirus advice)

British Psychological Society (Back to school guidance)

British Psychological Society (Teacher resilience during coronavirus school closures)

Childhood Bereavement Network (Growing in grief awareness)

Children’s Commissioner (Going back to school)

Department for Education (The impact of COVID-19 on staff mental health and wellbeing – what support is available?)

Department for Education (Supporting pupil and student wellbeing)

Education Endowment Foundation (COVID-19 support guide for schools)

Education Support (helpline)

Every Mind Matters (Mental health advice)

Healthy Early Years London (Awards scheme)

Healthy London Partnership (Mental Health in Schools Toolkit)

Healthy Schools London (Awards scheme)

Mental Health at Work (Our Frontline: Supporting teacher’s mental health during the pandemic)

MindEd (Coronavirus staff resilience hub)

National Children’s Bureau (Mental health and wellbeing in primary schools – preparing for recovery)

Place2Be (Mental Health Champions Foundation Programme)

Place2Be (Return to school resources)

Public Health England (Rise Above)

TES (Coronavirus support)

UK Government (Actions for early years and childcare providers during the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak)

UK Government (Extra mental health support for pupils and teachers)

UK Government (Guidance for full opening: Schools)

UK Government (Supporting children and young people with SEND as schools and colleges prepare for wider opening)

UK Government (Update on face coverings in schools)

YoungMinds (Supporting your pupils through the COVID-19 pandemic)