Schools never shut: the extraordinary lengths teachers have been going to in supporting children during lockdown
By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 11 June 2020
There has been much discussion in the news about schools ‘re-opening’ in the last few weeks; however, schools have never been ‘closed’ during the COVID-19 crisis, and in fact, teachers have been working incredibly hard to support their communities during the lockdown period.
As well as continuing to teach the children of key workers and vulnerable children, including through school holidays, staff have been engaged in a variety of activities which stretch far beyond their normal roles, as our research in the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Pedagogy (HHCP) has shown.
Our mission in HHCP is to improve children’s lives through pedagogy; during this crisis, we have prioritised supporting parents at home (through campaigns such as our ‘Get children thinking’ project) and – the focus here – documenting the experiences of staff in schools and the early years sector. We have spoken to and surveyed leaders across the field of primary and early years education, gathering fascinating testimonies of the experiences of the sector during lockdown, and used these to inform policy through the Education Select Committee’s call for evidence. What stands out from this rich data is the incredible efforts undertaken by schools, and particularly those who serve more deprived communities, to ensure their children’s welfare during lockdown.
Our survey of professionals revealed a huge range of activities which were undertaken by teachers and early yearsstaff while most children were at home, far beyond the provision of online learning or home education activities most talked about in the media (though these, of course, contributed significantly to teachers’ workloads). Teachers have been in regular contact with families, sometimes on a daily basis, to check their wellbeing, and some have done home visits. They have set up social media accounts and distributed videos of staff to help children feel they remain connected. Early years settings have been planning ahead for children who will be making the transition into nursery or school, including online home visits and virtual tours of the new settings.
Schools have also provided a range of services for families who are seen as vulnerable, including food banks, free school meal vouchers, gift vouchers and packed lunches, or have directed children to nearby schools where they can eat a free lunch. Packages of items such as toys, resources, stationery, books and games have been distributed to families. In some cases, weekly food and care packages are being delivered to families who receive free school meals. Nurseries have also delivered food parcels, baby supplies and medicines, and similarly been in regular contact with vulnerable families. For some communities, the school has become the main source of support during an extremely challenging period.
We also found that schools have also provided support with accessing benefits and bereavement services. One-to-one support and virtual parent groups have been provided by some early years settings, to build parents’ confidence in their ability to teach their child. For children with SEND, schools have provided specific plans and programmes of work, and organised online sessions of services such as speech therapy. For some, there is a new sense of partnership between schools/teachers and parents; for example, some staff report that online systems provide a safer space for harder-to-reach parents to make their voices heard.
The stories we have heard tell a tale of enormous effort and hard work, during a crisis which teachers and early years staff were totally unprepared for. Despite these efforts – which have fallen disproportionately on particular staff and particular schools – there remain serious concerns about the impact on children of the lockdown period. Our respondents had serious concerns about the impact of bereavement on children, and about children’s overall mental health and wellbeing. The challenge of dealing with grief and loss at the level of both individual and community has been particularly intense for settings in areas with a significant number of COVID-related deaths, and issues such as overcrowded housing and health disparities in areas of disadvantage exacerbate this challenge. Experiences of loneliness among students and increased levels of stress in parents struggling to support their children’s learning at home were commonly mentioned by staff.
The experiences of teachers and early years staffduring the COVID-19 crisis have obviously been varied, affected by the context of their school and personal circumstances – and other research at IOE continues to explore this. But, in all the discussion of schools reopening, we need to remember that this period of schools being ‘shut’ has been one of intense pressure and stress for many teachers, where they have engaged with communities in entirely new ways and the essential role of the school for many families has been revealed.