Coronavirus and going back to school or college

(Public Health England)


While some children and young people will have been looking forward to going back to formal education, others will not have.

The changes brought in because of the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak – like social distancing, improved hygiene, smaller classes and the possibility of not seeing some friends – may have left them feeling strange about being back.

Some may also have other worries, such as school-based anxiety or problems with bullying, or be dealing with big changes, like starting at a new school or college.

For those with additional needs, the changes to school life might be particularly upsetting and, as a parent or carer, you might need more support too.

We have some top tips and advice on how to make the transition back to school, college or other formal education as smooth as possible, as well as information about further help and support.


How do they feel about being back?

It’s easy to think we know how the children and young people we look after feel about being back at school or college, but this might be an assumption based on how we feel about it.

Although we all were in lockdown, every family’s experience will have been different, and local restrictions now mean everyone is facing different challenges.

Try reflecting on how it was for your child to be away for so long, and ask if there’s anything in particular they’re enjoying, looking forward to or worried about.

For younger children, you could try asking them to draw or paint what being back at school is like. For older ones, try asking them what 3 things they’re thinking about most.

If they’re anxious or have mixed feelings, let them know this is nothing they need to hide or be ashamed of and that others will be feeling the same.

There’s likely to be a lot of uncertainty around school life now, so listening to their thoughts will be really helpful. Reassure them that whatever they’re feeling is understandable and reasonable.

Try to resist any urge to have all the answers. The more we can all build resilience for uncertainty at this time, the better.

No one knows exactly what the future will be like – but it’s important to reassure them these changes will not be forever, and that you will be there to help them deal with whatever happens.

Top tips for going back to school or college

Be prepared
Make sure they’re prepared for and understand what’s different about being back. Talk about how things have changed – like the lesson schedule, class sizes, social distancing and whether they are able to see all their friends or teachers.

GOV.UK: Advice for parents and carers

Focus on the good things

Reassure them the current situation will not last forever and that any negative feelings they have should pass. Discuss the future, find out what they’re looking forward to and try to focus on those positives when they’re worried.

Talk about being careful

Recap what their institution is doing to make things as safe as possible, as well the things they can do themselves to stay safe from the virus. This should help ease any anxiety – for them and for you.

Re-establish a routine

Routines can be reassuring too. Try to get into the swing of what worked before as far as possible in terms of healthy eating, activity and sleep, or think about new routines that work better for the situation as it is now.

Reconnect with friends

Have they been in regular touch with friends over the past few months? Are they worried friendships have weakened? Even if they kept in touch, find out if there’s anything else they might want to do to reconnect now, as far as restrictions allow.

Help them solve problems

Discuss what changed and how they coped during the national lockdown, and how they’re dealing with any local restrictions now – could any of it help over the next few months, or if their school closes again? Are there other strategies they have used before in challenging situations they could apply?

Facing a big change

The child or young person you care for may be going through a transition in their life, like starting at a new school, moving from primary to secondary school, dealing with exams or results, or finishing formal education entirely.

These are big changes that are likely to cause stress or worry, even without the extra complications of coronavirus, but there are things you can do to help ease any anxiety or help them handle these difficulties.

For children who have moved schools or started college:

  • acknowledge the significance of the move
  • talk about how they feel
  • discuss what they missed during lockdown but also remind them about and focus on what they achieved before
  • help them to picture themselves fitting in at the new school
  • prepare the practicalities – like getting to and from the school and what their new routine is

For young people who have left school or college:

  • focus on the things they can control
  • acknowledge what they cannot control and how difficult that might be for them
  • suggest doing some online research to prepare for the things it’s possible to prepare for – you could offer your help or to do this together, if they want to
  • suggest finding online resources – for advice about training, apprenticeships, job-hunting or starting university, for example
  • encourage them to talk to others in the same situation and ask for advice and support

For those who have had exam results

There’s no doubt 2020 has been difficult for students who were scheduled to take exams or other assessments. If the child or young person you look after was disappointed with their results, it will help them if you accept their feelings, whatever they are.

Let them know you love them and are on their side – and steer clear of offering immediate judgments or solutions.

Often, it’s important to have some breathing space and time for reflection before starting to work through their feelings and their plan for what to do next.

Children with additional needs

If you’re looking after a child or young person who has special educational needs, disabilities, autism, mental health issues or a combination of these, there might be extra stress as a result of the big changes to everyday life caused by the coronavirus outbreak.

Change can be good or bad and is likely to affect how they’re feeling. They might have found the national lockdown hard, or still be dealing with local restrictions, and be having difficulty adjusting to being back in education.

Even if they are struggling to adapt, it’s important to be honest when talking about the situation and how they can stay safe. Planning out activities that they enjoy might help them feel better.

You could ask the institution they’re at to send photos or videos of the changes that have been made, as well as detailed information about what else to expect, and use these to help explain what has happened and why.

Preparing a new routine will also help, as will practising hygiene routines or social distancing measures they have to follow, like handwashing, queuing safely or following 1-way paths.


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