In the UK and elsewhere in the world, we are seeing children and young people return to early years, schools, and colleges gradually and will continue to see more educational settings opening up in the coming weeks. While it’s exciting for them to be able to join back their social circles in person, this inevitably also brings concerns about their safety and wellbeing.
Safeguarding has now become a part of our phraseology as the pandemic has created or deepened many vulnerabilities in our systems, disrupted schooling schedules, and added novel responsibilities for the staff. Children’s experiences of the pandemic have been very varied — they might have been safely isolating at home, or the past year might have been challenging, grief-ridden or traumatic. As children return to school, it’s important to acknowledge these differences and how they’ll impact their progress going forward.
There is also a need to put safeguarding measures in place that will ensure the physical as well as mental safety of the children. At the same time, the staff, especially the safeguarding leadership, will confront unprecedented challenges in the process. Their well-being, too, needs to be prioritised.
In this blog, we enumerate some safeguarding measures and wellbeing provisions that can help ensure safety in schools in a holistic manner.
In order to address how the mental health of children and staff has been impacted, it’s important to understand the various possible ways the past 18 months may have impacted them. Some children may have gone through a direct loss during this time, like losing a relative to the virus or other illnesses, or witnessing a close relative/friend go through a tough period of ill-health or hospitalisation.
For others, the loss may look different: parents who were furloughed or lost jobs (and in turn took to unhealthy coping mechanisms), families that moved homes, and more. The impact of long-term isolation from relatives, extended family, and friends can also weigh heavy on children.
"This", Kate Young, founder of the Safeguarding Association, reminds us, "could have led to a lot of children who previously weren’t even on the radar now falling into the vulnerable category. My main suggestion is to identify who these vulnerable young people are, finding a way to identify them without compromising their safety, also helping them self-identify, and then making the information on support resources readily available,” she adds.
Information about how the mental healthcare support at school works can be key in making newly vulnerable children comfortable about reaching out for help or opening up about their issues. This would entail looking out for less obvious signs of distress like children seeming withdrawn, uncharacteristically irritable, angry or confused. Children will also respond to grief differently. There should be robust processes in place to support students through this time as well as awareness amongst the children about the support they have available. One of these without the other will make the safeguarding plan ineffective.
Cruse Bereavement Support has a range of resources that can be helpful for the school staff to support children, including a guide on creating a school bereavement policy.
Under normal circumstances, school staff are able to identify vulnerable children through cues from their behaviour and other warning signs. Now, vulnerable children (especially the newly vulnerable ones) may have fallen through the cracks created by the changed mode of learning and teaching.
Young shares her number one concern from the past 18 months: that the rapport-building of the staff with parents was interrupted:
“We’ve only seen parents online, so the school staff don’t have a relationship with them, and, therefore, cannot make judgement calls on whether a particular situation is risky and what level of risk is being held because they don’t have the background information on the family that they would ordinarily have. This gap is especially true for parents whose children have been in the school for just 2 years. There’s a huge piece of the puzzle missing there. For safeguarding, being able to build that trust with families quickly is important.”
In line with that, it’s important for schools to devise a plan where they can get to know the children and their families better. We need to get to know them before we can support them with their needs, understand who they are, what they’re struggling with, what their vulnerabilities are, what the risk factors look like. This plan should involve measures to help identify the vulnerable groups and also sharing information and resources so they can self-identify.
Another aspect of children returning to schools is anxiety around rejoining social spaces, starting social interactions again, and feeling safe with respect to infection. Karen Liebenguth, an accredited mindfulness teacher and supervisor & founder of Green Space Coaching & Mindfulness shares some tips on how to stay calm and grounded as we return to school, useful for both staff as well as the students.
For school staff, she suggests an informal system of work buddies:
“Ask a colleague to be your work buddy and arrange to talk with each other regularly. Share how your work has been, what you’ve managed to do, what you’ve found challenging. Avoid going into catastrophic thinking together. Help each other come back to primary experience, to what’s actually going on, in the here and now. Find out what you need and how you can best support each other.”
In addition to resources and exercises for self-help, the school leadership and Designated Safeguarding Leads (DSLs) need to be thoughtfully supported through more hands-on professional and emotional support. They will be looking at supporting vulnerable children with different needs from a variety of angles. DSLs are going to be dealing with huge volumes as well as the serious nature of cases for a long while.
For someone working on this caseload volume, they need adequate resources at their disposal as well, not just around their case management, but also in terms of emotional support structures for themselves. A big part of Young’s work, she shares, is supporting the leadership team and DSLs by offering them a space for one-on-one support where they can come and offload, have an open conversation in confidence, and get their batteries recharged.
Provision of training, support and guidance along with the creation of policies that foster work-life balance, decent pay and conditions will also positively impact their wellbeing.
As schools reopen, it's important to think of ways to create safety in community settings. This includes infrastructural adjustments like CO2 monitors, creating seating arrangements that abide by social distancing norms, crowd-control measures, one-way systems, robust COVID testing, among other measures.
Ventilation has been a cause of concern as we return to schools since the possibility of infection shoots up in poorly ventilated rooms.
The Department for Education (DfE) is spending £25m to provide 300,000 CO2 monitors (September 2021). These monitors will send out alerts if the CO2 levels rise and the fresh air is scanty. Former Education Secretary Gavin Williamson shared, “Providing all schools with CO2 monitors will help them make sure they have the right balance of measures in place, minimising any potential disruption to education and allowing them to focus on world-class lessons and catch up for the children who need it.”
Some schools are choosing to keep face coverings mandatory, others are also considering ozone disinfecting machines. If the school experiences an outbreak, bubble groups and face masks are advised to be enforced strictly.
Apart from this, many schools are encouraging children to take lateral flow tests at home and self-isolate if testing positive. Children in the age group 12-15 years are also being offered the COVID vaccines — a dose of Pfizer — to curb possible infections.
To successfully return to schools and in-person teaching, it’s important to minimise the risk factors and to highlight the available support for both children and staff.