Covid-19: concerns and challenges | Education Support
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Covid - teachers challenges and concerns

Covid-19: concerns and challenges

16th September 2020

Teachers and education staff are facing immense challenges in the weeks and months ahead and will need support for their physical and mental health, says deputy headteacher Andrew Cowley. 

“Fresh Start”

“New Beginnings”

We all love a cliché at the start of a school year and have probably raised an eyebrow or a knowing smile as the head drops one or more of these in their opening assembly.

In a normal year.

This year however is far from normal. The pandemic has seen to that, and added to the usual hopes and fears surrounding the commencement of a new academic year have been a plethora of guidance documents, risk assessments, signage, new expectations and strict rules surrounding ‘bubbles’.

There are many positives to the full opening of schools. To welcome back happy, smiling faces has brought an upbeat mood into schools. Our pupils have returned ready to learn and to work hard. Parents have, in the main, been very appreciative of the support schools have given, as we are of them for supporting home learning in such challenging circumstances. Teachers and support staff are indebted to the work of site managers, caretakers and cleaners in preparing the school site so it is as safe as possible for the whole school community. Headteachers and senior leaders have given long hours and much thought to running their institutions effectively and efficiently at a time of an ongoing national healthcare emergency.

Challenges ahead

Scratch below the surface though, and we realise that teachers have concerns and challenges ahead of them in the weeks and months ahead and that they will need support for their physical and mental health, as revealed in Education Support's new research report Covid-19 and the classroom.

The most obvious concern is of the virus itself. Some 9% of teachers reportedly have had Covid-19 symptoms, either before or during the lockdown period. Also, 60% of teachers are concerned about the virus returning. Despite assurances that children are likely to only suffer mild symptoms, there is the fear of transmission in the classroom. Even with the best efforts of social distancing or the wearing of masks or visors, there is no guarantee that teachers will not be infected. The closure of class or year group bubbles is one matter; the fear of passing the coronavirus to loved ones is another altogether. Many teachers have not seen their parents or grandparents during this entire episode, solely to keep them safe. Causing granny to be unwell by attending an ill-advised social event would be irresponsible; doing so from being at work would be heart-breaking.

New protocols

The extent of new guidance will also lead to a concern of making a mistake and of the guilt associated with this should an infection result. Schools differ in the extent of their regulation. Some will let an adult work alongside a child for a short time, masked or unmasked, while others insist the teacher remains behind a demarcated line or in a box. Marking may be allowed during lessons or after it; children might be expected to self-mark; books may be ‘quarantined’ for a period of days. Such practices will be alien to the dedicated teacher and it is going to be very easy to forget what shouldn’t be done in a busy classroom. Teachers are adaptable to change, but with changed routines to handwashing, playtimes, entrance and exit from the classroom and procedures for giving out resources, it will be ever so easy to miss something.

Such fears are leading some teachers to be hypervigilant of potential risk and of looking out for any possible breach of protocols. This, in addition to the external pressures upon schools of assessment and of inspection, means that school leaders in particular need to be aware of the anxiety levels of their staff, and that governors need to be equally aware of that of their headteachers and senior leaders. Already, teachers in Year 2 and Year 6 are concerned about SATs at the end of the year and Ofsted is seemingly preparing to begin inspecting schools again. The pressure of both statutory assessment and of inspection is well known and recognised. The notion of either during a global pandemic is going to lead to additional levels of stress.

Parent negativity

Though the majority of parents have expressed support for schools and teachers there are a minority who haven’t. Perhaps fuelled by Covid-19 conspiracy theories or other fake news circulating on parent pages on Facebook, there have already been reports of schools having to bar parents from site for abusive remarks made to schools, heads and teachers for enacting rules which are drawn from government guidance. The wearing of masks, by teachers or by children, has been an issue for some parents, either opposing it or demanding it. Though the support of maybe 95% or more of the school community is reassuring, the comments and actions of a minority is hurtful and upsetting and it is a very human reaction to think more about the negativity than the support.

Growing anxiety

We should have a real concern too at the negative impact of the timing of the release of guidance on the wellbeing of our school leaders. Any number of documents released at anti-social hours in what was already a pressure-cooker environment doesn’t help anxiety, an anxiety fuelled also by unhelpful coverage of schools through some channels of the popular press through the summer. Ensuring that tens of thousands of words of guidance is distilled into a form that teachers, parents and children can understand and follow represents a substantial challenge even to the calmest and most self-assured headteacher. Some of these headteachers are also leading schools in areas greatly impacted by loss during the pandemic. Leading a school through a period of mourning is a test of an altogether different extent.

Covid-19 anxiety is very real, and although some may be dismissive of a ‘mental health crisis’ emerging from the pandemic, those informed about trauma know that the effects of it are long-term in emerging. For our children who have come back happily enough, the impact of a long period at home will emerge in months to come. For our teachers, the pressures of recent months will combine with the demands of dealing safely with our return to school. Many will not express their worries openly; others will wear their hearts on their sleeves. Every member of staff though will need a safe space to sound off their concerns. That safe space is a metaphorical rather than a literal one, as staffrooms are out of bounds because of social distancing measures.

Christmas levels of tiredness

We are only into the opening weeks of the term, and a glance at social media will tell us that teachers are tired. Not ‘Friday tired’ but ‘Christmas tired’ through a combination of getting back into a new routine combined with a level of heightened vigilance to keep us safe in addition to ensuring we are actually doing our job. This tiredness is fuelled also by concerns for our loved ones and the physical distance we have to keep from our colleagues.

This is the saddest aspect of our return. In the main, teachers are sociable creatures and the staffroom is the beating heart of the school, a place to offload, share and laugh and one where we can escape the class. Eating lunch alone, drinking tea from a thermos flask and not being able to converse with colleagues face to face unless we pass in the corridor; as a long term measure this is going to affect us all. Sometimes, we could all do with a hug. We can’t even do that.

How do we support each other right now? By being there, by being that listening ear and a sounding board, and crucially being very aware of the culture in our schools and the quality of the relationships we have.

Keep safe.

Andrew Cowley is Deputy Headteacher at Orchard Primary School in Sidcup, co-founder and blogger for Healthy Toolkit and the author of “The Wellbeing Toolkit: Sustaining, supporting and enabling school staff” published by Bloomsbury Education. Andrew tweets as @andrew_cowley23 and as @HealthyToolkit

How we can help 

Teachers and education staff who are feeling stressed or anxious during these uncertain times can get confidential emotional support from our free and confidential helpline: 08000 562561.

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