In September, Alumni Leadership Board member Ben Jones began a new teaching job in Bolton, Greater Manchester. Here, he describes what it’s like to teach in a COVID-19 hotspot, and argues that safeguarding both the mental health and academic attainment of young people must jointly be considered as priorities for government and school leaders during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Face masks, temperature checks, PPE, and gallons of hand sanitiser. These are just a handful of the new additions to my daily routine as a secondary school teacher as a result of the Coronavirus that has swept across the planet since early this year. Upon arriving at school, my first priority is to upload classwork to our online platform for those pupils who are self-isolating. Then, I collect the pupils who are in school from the yard. They are lined up, face masks on and socially distanced, ready to have their temperatures checked before entering the classroom. If a young person’s temperature is above the accepted threshold, we wait five minutes and re-test them. A second high result means that they will be sent home as a precautionary measure and told to get tested for the virus.

Teachers move from classroom to classroom in order to minimise the number of people in the corridors at any one time. The young people I teach sit in the same numbered position in the classroom all day. They eat lunch in the same numbered order in the refectory, and spend their outdoor time at break and lunch in a designated section of the schoolyard so that they do not mix with other classes. I’d like you to consider how you’d cope having to sit in the same seat all day long, from 08:00 to 15:45, with just two short breaks to stretch your legs and get some fresh air. I must say that it is testament to the character of the fantastic young people I teach that they have dealt with these changes with incredible maturity. This being said, I am seriously concerned about the effects that the pandemic will have on both their learning and their mental health, unless steps are taken by the government and by schools to mitigate the impact of the pandemic on our young people.

The teaching strategies that I have refined since my teaching career began have also had to undergo some fundamental adaptations due to the current restrictions. I can no longer circulate the classroom to support individual pupils and manage poor behaviour. Similarly, my traditional routine of perusing a set of student books to assess their understanding has gone out the window. Instead, my classes upload a screenshot of a specific piece of work to our online learning platform, which I can then use to identify any general misconceptions that have emerged over the previous handful of lessons. As a new school, we were fortunate enough to have access to funding that ensures every student has their own iPad, making classroom – and virtual – learning infinitely easier. My concern is that for the vast majority of schools, access to such technology is simply not financially viable, and this could quite feasibly cause a noticeable “attainment gap” between those who can afford technology, and those who can’t. Indeed, the Sutton Trust’s own research on the impact of the pandemic states that: “In the most deprived schools, 15% of teachers thought more than a third of their students would not have adequate access to a device, compared to only 2% in the most affluent state schools.”

Whilst schools are open at the moment, time will tell how long this will be feasible if infection rates continue to rise. In this scenario, it is essential that explicit government guidance is given on the expected standards for home learning. Currently there is too much inconsistency in the delivery of education for pupils who are not attending school, and clearer guidance would give schools the confidence that they are providing the best possible education. However, government guidance should serve to enable school leaders to make decisions based on their individual contexts, rather than acting as a restrictive measure that limits school freedoms. Anyone who has visited schools will know how uniquely different every single one is, based on geography, student intake, and school leadership. Consequently the decision-making process for how to educate pupils if schools were to shut their doors must be left to individual school leaders.

Last but by no means least, there should be a dedicated focus among policymakers and school leaders on how lockdown and the other restrictions caused by the virus have affected the mental health of children and young people. Recently published NHS data indicates that the number of children likely to have a mental disorder has increased by almost half since 2017, with the pandemic undoubtedly making a significant contribution to this rise. My master’s research found that, in 2019, school leaders at all levels from primary to sixth form were buying into private mental health services for pupils due to the lengthy waiting times for access to NHS services. Difficulties with accessing services has inevitably been compounded by the surge in young people seeking help due to the pandemic, with a high court judge last week decrying the complete lack of hospital beds available and its contribution to the suicide of a vulnerable teenager. Clearly the government must invest to increase the capacity of NHS Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS). Moreover, a preventative approach to mental health is the best way to protect the wellbeing of our young people and ensure that they do not experience an avoidable mental health crisis. As such I would echo the calls of the children’s commissioner for England for an NHS-trained counsellor to be made available for every school in order to guarantee early intervention for those young people who need support.

Without intervention, there is the very real danger that the Coronavirus pandemic will leave a legacy of disproportionately limiting the social mobility of the most disadvantaged in our society, worsening already entrenched inequalities and lessening the likelihood of our young people reaching their potential. This being said, we must all remember that we will eventually return to some version of normality, be it in the near or distant future. Until that point, and in spite of everything happening outside the four walls of my classroom, a young person will make me laugh, amaze me with their historical knowledge, or make me think differently about a topic – and that is a privilege that I will always be grateful for.

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