Lockdown has had a detrimental impact on students' mental wellbeing
The Children’s Commissioner for England this week announced an inquiry into the 100,000 ‘lost children of lockdown’ who are still not attending school. According to Dame Rachel de Souza, around 95% of children are normally in school at this time of year, but now the figure is currently around 87%. While some absences will inevitably be down to illness and Covid, too many children have simply failed to return since classrooms were closed.
We cannot underestimate how important this inquiry is from a safeguarding perspective. We have seen from tragedies such as the murder of Arthur Labinjo-Hughes how vital it is that children are in school so that teachers and other adults can flag signs of neglect and abuse. The chaos of lockdowns has made it all too easy for vulnerable children to slip through the net, and many of these ‘missing’ children will still be trapped in dangerous home environments, gangs and other criminal activity.
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However, there is another important reason for the sheer number of absences: anxiety. ‘Anxiety’ was recently voted Children’s Word of the Year, and this is hardly surprising — restrictions may be relaxing, but we can’t expect students to immediately recover from the cognitive whiplash of the last two years.
Yesterday it was confirmed that masks would no longer be required in lessons, and I expected my classes to rip their face coverings off in joy as fast as they could. Quite the opposite. In fact, the majority of my pupils kept their masks on — even when I explicitly reminded them that they no longer had to. Yet who can really blame them? For almost two years they have been told that they are vectors of disease, risks to their loved ones, ticking time bombs of transmission — and we can’t expect them to instantly unlearn that.
Older students may be more adaptable, and may be able to cope with the constant cognitive dissonance of public health messaging. Yet younger students struggle with change and uncertainty at the best of times. The youngest students I teach are 11, meaning that they were just 9 when the pandemic started, and so Covid has been a looming presence over almost a fifth of their lives. I can’t even imagine what it’s like for primary school children, who have spent an even greater proportion of their formative years worried about bubbles and quarantine and why they can’t hug their grandparents.
A lot of students’ anxiety comes from ‘anchoring’ — a psychological bias in which people rely too heavily on the first information they are given when it comes to future decision-making. A good example of this is our persistent insistence on hand-washing and regular cleaning, even though we know that Covid is airborne and doesn’t spread on surfaces. One of my pupils last week became incredibly anxious when I asked him to swap exercise pupils with his partner, for fear of Covid contamination. He might be misguided, but again who can blame him? Just last night at the theatre we were made to sanitise our hands before we came in, and I noticed that the bathrooms were covered with ‘Caution: High Contact Zone’ posters above all the door handles.
If we want to get these ‘missing’ children back into school, then we need to persuade students (and parents) that it is safe for them to do so. With so many pupils and teachers still isolating with Covid, this will be easier said than done; anxiety thrives on uncertainty, and what we need now is reassurance.