Cara Slavin and Lana McIntyre, S6 pupils at St Matthew’s Academy in Saltcoats, investigate the lasting impact of the pandemic on the children at their school.
We’d all rather forget the pandemic. But not everyone can. As time passes it’s increasingly clear to us that the greatest damage from COVID-19 wasn’t on the lungs but on relationships.
In our school and many others, the fracturing of those relationships, loose ones, tight ones, the bonds that bind our community together, has become a concern.
The days of enforced social distancing are now gone, but the challenges which came with Covid are still lingering, especially in young people. Coming back to school wasn’t easy.
There was constant overthinking that wasn’t present before: “What if the person I am meeting has Covid and I must isolate?
“What if I catch Covid and become unwell? How am I going to hold a conversation with someone in-person without the excuse of my device disconnecting, or, my microphone has broken?”
It wasn’t until we’d been back for a while that the decline in attendance became more and more noticeable. Familiar faces we recognised in the corridors suddenly stopped showing up.
One day we had a teacher, the next they were gone, and a supply teacher was informing the class that the teacher in question had caught Covid.
Those days are over now. No more masks, no more constant hand sanitising. No more two-metre distancing.
But the knock-on effects of Covid isolation have had a profound affect on the development of teenagers.
Having spent a long time during the pandemic in the comfort of their homes, many young people have become content with staying there.
This has caused several pupils to stop coming to school regularly, one member of our school pastoral team told us. She is extremely worried about them.
“How will they function after leaving school when they try to make a living?” she asked.
While working from home, pupils were expected to access resources online with written guidance from class teachers, but without the physical presence of staff sometimes it didn’t get done.
Miss Corr, a member of the technical department and principal teacher of health and wellbeing, said: “Some students didn’t hand in one piece of work for the entire online learning period, meaning there are significant gaps in knowledge that are almost impossible to fill”.
Perhaps even more damaging has been the impact on basic social cohesion – a crucial part of each child’s school experience.
A lot of the junior pupils who missed out on the transition between primary and secondary school have had little interaction with their peers during the pandemic and the effect is visible in classrooms.
They often struggle to communicate with each other respectfully and appropriately. One factor is that people are still dealing with the grief of loved ones lost during the pandemic.
Many families have had to endure restricted funerals and grieving processes which were significantly shorter and more isolated than usual. This build-up of emotions with no way to process them and little opportunity for an outlet has made for a lot of unacknowledged traumas that can burst out in unexpected ways.
To create support and safe spaces to talk for those in need, St Matthew’s Academy have created a group of S6 pupils and staff who comprise the Mental Wellbeing Ambassadors of the school.
Each member of the team is equipped with a bright green lanyard to be identifiable by others as being trained in a variety of techniques to approach mental health issues.
The programme aims to make students feel more comfort- able speaking with fellow pupils about their struggles, and the S6 pupils have a better understanding of how to target those students in need of help.
Mr Colligan, Headteacher of St Matthew’s Academy, said he believes that ‘strong relationships are the success of any Catholic school’ and that to encourage young people to seek support we must reinforce the message that ‘good mental health comes from strong relationships and support networks’.
These measures are making a difference. But what we have to ask, is how else could we help the children stuck in the pandemic?