By A Voice member (personal view)
Although some schools and settings are still open for the children of key workers, many have been closed since the announcement from the government. For many of us in education and childcare, the thought of reopening fully is a challenging one. Speaking to teachers and practitioners has highlighted that many share the same anxieties – fear for the safety of children, staff and families.
One member of teaching staff commented that they would be happy to return when it is safe and:
“when parents understand that the opening of lockdown doesn’t mean that COVID-19 has gone”.
Another contributor added:
“We should only return when it is safe to do so. Simple. No putting in social distancing measures which wouldn’t work in schools let alone early years. If it can’t be safe to return to normal then we shouldn’t risk it.”
Social distancing and time to plan
The struggle with understanding how social distancing can work with children is very real. How can we put educators in a work situation where they are unable to social distance, yet when they leave work and visit a supermarket, they then have to adhere to social distancing measures?
It’s these questions and concerns which are fuelling anxiety and stress. The uncertainty of what our normal working day will look like is a worry.
We need time to plan for our return. Time to put safety measures in place, but also plans to support staff relationships, wellbeing and developing an understanding of what we have just been through and the long-term effects.
Some children and staff will have experienced illness and loss in their families. The impact of COVID-19 on their lives will be significant. Some teachers commented about the need for nurturing – not just the children but the whole school community.
In education and childcare, social distancing is not just difficult. It’s impossible, particularly in early years. Children are social beings, looking to us for interaction, comfort, contact, teaching and play. They need us to be emotionally available, to cuddle and reassure as we’ve always done, but how can we do this with current social distancing rules in place?
Think of the myriad of scenarios which require close contact – administering first aid, picking up a child who has fallen, taking a crying child from their parent, feeding, changing nappies, helping put on shoes and coats, caring for a child who has fallen ill. All these things are usually done naturally and without a thought. A child cries…you offer comfort. But what now? Infection and death rates are still high. There is a real fear.
Supporting the wellbeing of children needs careful thought before they return to an environment which might physically look the same but with many different rules and practices in place.
Will we be wearing masks? Will the children be wearing masks?
One teacher worried that:
“If they are back here, will they have to be greeted at the door by staff with masks on? It would be terrible for their language development.”
This highlights that the concerns are not just around safety but for the emotional wellbeing and development of children.
Unfortunately, many parents also have concerns about development and children falling behind. Our role is to reassure that all children are in the same position at the moment. However, when we do fully reopen, will there be pressure to ‘catch up’?
A leader suggested that:
“I think schools need to have a strategic plan. Not pushing children or staff to meet ridiculous targets to close the gap in a short time.”
The impacts of the closures and lockdown are already going to be considerable without pressuring children and staff on top of the stress they’ve already experienced.
Although as a sector we’re remaining in contact with families, the true effects of the lockdown aren’t likely to be revealed until we can have open, honest, face-to-face discussions.
“We cannot anticipate all the emotional anxiety that will be walking back through our doors. We don’t know what children have heard, seen or felt whilst we’ve been shut.”
This was a comment from a concerned school leader, anxious for the wellbeing of their children.
Although great things are already happening within settings and schools for supporting wellbeing and mental health, our provisions are going to have to be completely reviewed in light of COVID-19.
Unfortunately, supporting children, and their families, emotionally once we fully reopen is going to be challenging for us.
A suggestion from a leader is:
“Counselling for staff, 1:1 discussions as staff teams, openness and support. Understanding that this has an impact on us is so many ways.”
It’s clear that supervisions are going to be more important than ever in safeguarding the wellbeing of staff, giving them a confidential outlet to share their worries and thoughts.
A contributing factor to the anxiety felt by educators has been the media response.
One comment from a head was:
“My heart leaps into my mouth at every new clickbait headline.”
She goes on to talk about the impact this speculation has on families in that:
“Parents ring us weekly after reading things in the papers about re-opening and it’s hard to tell them that it may not be true.”
Another leader commented:
“Until we hear from the Prime Minister himself, papers, government members etc need to stop speculating as I know this is making staff and families anxious for a range of personal reasons.”
Let’s just make one thing clear – we are not against reopening. Of course we want to be back with the children. Being anxious about reopening does not make teachers, lecturers or practitioners any less dedicated to their role. It means, as a sector, we are fearful and afraid that the economy will be given preference over the safety of everyone working or volunteering in an education or childcare setting.
We miss the children, we miss our colleagues and our routines, we miss the celebrations and wonderful things we had planned.
Moving forwards, it’s clear that talking about our anxieties around the virus and returning to normal can help.
One nursery manager talked about their stress:
“First it was the actual virus itself – working in close proximity of people in the NHS, it can cause anxieties. As a manager, I put everyone else first – the children, the staff, the parents, but I slowly slipped into anxiety myself with stress, lack of sleep, feeling the burden of the business.
“Talking helps and I find the communities on platforms such as Twitter a real beacon for opening up, finding support and helping through these tough times.”
It’s time to wait for official announcements, ignore media speculation, support each other and rely on our unions to champion us.
One particularly poignant comment came from a leader who was keen to stress that:
“all the staff in our school community have gone above and beyond to meet the needs of our families. We need to get things right for them, as they get things right for the children.”
There is no quick fix, but what is certain is that the government has one chance to get this right for children, educators and all staff working in settings and schools.
We need notice, we need to create and maintain a safe environment for children to learn and play, and confidence that the health of those interacting closely with children will not be at risk.
Let’s get this right.