The decision on when to re-open schools has become one of the most hotly contested issues around easing the coronavirus lockdown.But while the debate has largely focused on the loss to children’s education while schools have been shut, a bigger concern is the effect on their mental health.
While President Trump has taken issue with his own infectious diseases adviser over when it will be safe to reopen schools, while in the U.K. the government is locked in a battle of its own over a planned return for students.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson, desperate to get the economy moving again, has said he aims to reopen schools to some students in England from the beginning of June, with all children of primary age – up to 11 – returning to class before the summer break.
Teaching unions have rejected this and set out their own five tests before schools can fully reopen, including more testing, effective social distancing and adequate supplies of protective equipment.
And their trust in government advice that reopening can be done safely has not exactly been enhanced by a catastrophic response to the virus that has left the U.K. with the highest death toll in Europe so far, and the second highest in the world, after the U.S.
The ensuing battle has seen a level of vitriol and bitterness that quickly dispels any feelings of solidarity in the face of a common foe.
Teachers have been accused of shirking their duty and refusing to step up when others have done so, while teachers have accused their critics of using them as human guinea pigs, putting both them and the children they teach at risk.
But while the debate around what’s best for children revolves around closing the gaps in their education, this misses the real impact of the lockdown.
Just as important as their formal education – perhaps even more so – are the social lessons children learn at school.
They learn to play with other children and to form and maintain relationships, as well as a host of skills including co-operating, negotiating and the art of compromise.
Through relationships with their peers, as well as with their teachers, children also learn how to regulate their emotions and develop social skills, skills that will be at least as important for their future lives as anything else they learn in the classroom.
Deprived of the opportunity to play and interact with their peers in person, young people risk losing those skills and instead of developing confidence and self-assurance are instead in danger of feeling isolated and insecure.
On top of this, they are likely to have feelings of despair, fear and helplessness as the virus disrupts their lives.
In between the tragedy of the lives lost to Covid-19 and the impact on the economy, we are in danger of underplaying how traumatic this whole experience is and will be for everyone, particularly for young people whose characters and personalities are still being formed.
The impact on young people’s mental health is likely to be significant and long-lasting, and far in excess of the impact of losing a few months of education.
This is why, when schools do return, the focus should be on easing children back into the classroom environment and encouraging them to play with their friends, rather than cramming them with as much of the ‘missing’ material as possible.
It is why reopening schools but preventing children from playing with each other is both misguided and risks causing further harm.
And it is also why talk of running summer schools to help children ‘catch up’, or making children repeat a year, are wide of the mark.
It is true that students with important exams coming up next year will have missed large chunks of the syllabus.
But instead of embarking on a learning frenzy to make sure they fit the exams, we should tailor the exams to fit the student. We need to recognize that young people have been traumatized and make allowances. And we need to make sure we pay as much, if not more, attention to their mental health as to their education.
I’m a freelance journalist specializing in education. My career so far has taken in regional and national newspapers and magazines, including Forbes, The Daily Telegraph and the Guardian. A lot has changed since I started covering education as a wide-eyed junior reporter in the early 1990s, not least the role of technology in the classroom, but as long as perfection remains just out of reach there will be plenty to discuss. I’ve been hooked on news since setting up a school magazine at 15, but these days I stick to reporting and let someone else sell the adverts, set the crossword and staple the pages together.