“So, we won’t all be together again?”
This response to my “any questions?” at the end of a difficult-to-deliver assembly stopped me in my tracks. The questioner and, indeed, the hundreds of other young people in the room looked at me intently waiting for the answer, for the reassurance, for the clarity they have come to expect from their teachers and the other adults in their lives. One thing that this global crisis has taught us all is that we cannot promise any certainties and so the response – “we have to send you home because we want to keep you safe and well. Think of all the time you’ll be able to spend with the people you love and care about at home. We are really looking forward to seeing you all, very soon” – was the best I could muster.
Friday 20th March 2020 came. Schools in England joined their counterparts in other countries by closing the doors to the vast majority of their young people. Work was uploaded to virtual learning platforms or printed and sent home in huge wads. Staff stood at school gates, en masse, to say goodbye and wish the students and their families well.
While some children will have inevitably expressed joy at not having to go to school and marvelled at the idea of switching alarms off, the soon-to-follow Government instruction to Stay At Home will have changed this. Schools provide important means for play and social interactions that are key to the development of young people.
Suddenly the perceived importance to follow the daily lesson timetable takes a step back; the need to create a healthy balance takes precedence. Using technology to maintain peer relationships becomes vital in managing the emotional well-being of all. Children bake, play outside in gardens, enjoy arts and crafts, play board games, and interact with their families in ways that contrast pre-pandemic life.
Perhaps we can take comfort in the fact that many children up and down the country, and across the globe, will show their resilience in the days, weeks and, possibly, months to come. Very young children will be supported to understand why they can’t see their beloved Grandparents in person, despite promises that they will wash their hands. Family units will enjoy nostalgic times together; revisiting films and TV programmes they have all enjoyed and they will reminisce about the good times they have shared – things that, possibly, young people would previously have worked hard to avoid.
These children will find these times worrying but begin to acknowledge that things are out of their control, and they will seek and find the assurances they need from their loved ones.
But that question from the student also filled me with dread.
As a Pastoral Lead, concern understandably turns to those young people for whom the school is much more than a place to be educated; the safety net has been removed for those from unstable backgrounds. Where school usually filled the gaps opened by or sought to tend the wounds caused by poverty, neglect and abuse; the high levels of support and diligence in caring for this important minority are not currently possible.
Some of those who rely on schools to provide them with a daily hot meal, will now be faced with increased challenges as the panic buying and stockpiling seen the world over, leaves shelves empty and families struggling to procure basic necessities. Where substance misuse or violence exists within homes, the order to stay inside might escalate frustrations and anxieties within adults and, in turn, escalate the volatility of the environment.
Already in the US, a children’s hospital in Texas has treated six severe child abuse cases in the space of a week, when typically this is the number of cases they’d see in a month.
This current way of living might also heighten the risk for some young people to be exploited by gangs or to be increasingly more susceptible to CSE (Child Sexual Exploitation), as their home structures fail to provide them with the security they need and the necessary boundaries to ensure compliance with the expectations around social distancing.
And so, the means to communicate with and look after our most vulnerable children will be amongst the biggest concern of schools and external agencies across the world. We must recognise that those young people who really need it, have temporarily lost full access to the people, systems and structures that seek to provide them with the stability, security and care that they want, need and deserve.
In the UK, refuges are working to remain open to continue to ensure that those who need support are still able to access it. However, not everyone has this opportunity. It is therefore so vital at this time to reach out to our neighbours. To be there for one another, to advocate for those most vulnerable, and – where safe – to reach out to them.