Opinion: Children’s mental health will suffer irreparably if schools don’t reopen soon

By missing out on support networks available at school, children are facing long-term consequences on their mental health, writes SAGE member and Honorary Lecturer Dr Gavin Morgan (UCL Psychology and Language Sciences).

Schools give much more to our children than merely opportunities to learn. They also promote the development of a child’s social emotional and mental health needs. The longer children are not attending schools, the greater problems we are storing for them and the education system in the months and years ahead. Covid-19 is not an equal disease.

The most vulnerable children are being affected the most from missing school. For many youngsters, school is the most stable and secure part of their lives. For some, the attachments they build with teachers and peers are incredibly important for their mental health and wellbeing.

We know that a failure to positively support psychological wellbeing has longer-term negative implications and this will be amplified by a continued lack of access to schools. We also know that school attachment and belonging are linked to later educational attainment; we will be managing the damaging effects of the pandemic in child development for many years to come.

Evidence from previous pandemic studies show that children isolated or quarantined are more likely to develop acute stress disorder, attachment disorder and grief. In studies from across the world, 30% of children met the clinical criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder. Time is important - the longer this continues, the more profound the difficulties will be; more children will be affected and the greater the cost and challenge will be to overcome them. The risk to vulnerable children’s welfare has increased significantly as a result of school closures. The risk of harm and abuse in the home is likely to be higher due to isolation and financial stress.

Many children have been denied access to key figures in their lives for the past three months and there is a real risk this could continue into the autumn. We are storing up issues that will need to be addressed when schools fully reopen. The sooner children return to school the fewer negative effects there will be. Teachers are already familiar with the six-week dip that occurs in child development over the summer break - amplify this to six months or more and the problems are considerable.

A sustained period away from school will reinforce inequalities between children, for instance a growing digital divide with some able to access remote learning with effective IT and good broadband, which others can’t. However, remote learning can never replace the need for human contact and interaction that all children need in order to develop healthily.

Although many children have coped well so far without access to school, the longer they are not attending, the greater the risk of adverse effects. As time goes on, more children are likely to experience negative impacts to their wellbeing and mental health. Months away from school will mean that emerging developmental problems are missed by educational psychologists, opportunities for early intervention will be lost, resulting in greater damage to children that will require longer and more costly interventions.

Children need opportunities to play and interact with their friends - they learn so much in terms of social development from these experiences. The most vulnerable will also be negatively affected by poor housing, poverty, lack of outside space and opportunities for play and exercise, crucial for positive mental health and wider development.

As psychologists, we know the value of co-construction - of working with others to help them to become involved in developing solutions. The government and Department for Education should have been planning for schools to reopen even as they were being closed; and should have been working with teachers, parents, professional bodies and local authorities to develop trust, open communication and a shared goal. A lack of clear direction from the government has led to a lack of clarity and understanding. An opportunity has been missed and parents are fearful and teachers mistrustful.

Children need to be in schools. The longer-term effects of dealing with the consequences of closures will have an impact on educational psychologists and other educational professionals in services that have been affected by a decade of austerity. There will need to be more psychology and psychologists in our schools and communities to help manage the consequences of closures. Many children are likely to need emotional support developed by educational psychologists and teachers. Supporting the development of a whole cohort of children affected by not being in school will be a challenge requiring considerable resources and planning.

This article was first published in the Observer on 20 June.