As schools reopen, young carers’ needs and concerns remain high. Feylyn Lewis sets out ways schools can support them in the coming weeks and months
The interminable months of lockdown have been difficult for everyone. But for the estimated 800,000 plus young carers in England, these have been some of the most challenging times of their young lives. School staff now have a very delicate task in helping to support the mental health challenges wrought by the pandemic as they return to school.
Here are four pinch points that are common to young carers’ experiences, and how to help them get past them.
Increased isolation due to loss of respite opportunities
New research conducted by Carers Trust found that 69 per cent of young carers are feeling less connected to others since the outbreak. In large part, this is because they experienced heightened isolation during lockdowns due to the removal of respite activities.
Providing students with ample opportunities to have fun with their peers, such as structured games and extended time for friendly catch-up, will ease their transition back to the classroom. In fact, for these students, catching up with friends will be as important as catching up with the curriculum. Perhaps even more so.
Added stress due to home learning
While many have struggles with new modes of learning, young carers have juggled that with caring for their family. There are widespread reports of young carers sharing devices with other family members (if they have access to a device at all), and of poor wi-fi speeds.
Teachers can best support young carers by minimising the technology needed at home to complete assignments and setting aside time in the school day for them to access computers when they are necessary. Understanding that this is a time of competing priorities, teachers could also offer flexible deadlines, opening the door to proactive, rather than retroactive, communication about young carers’ needs.
Covid-19 anxiety adds to mental health toll
While media attention has largely focused on adults contracting Covid, research has shown that children could be infected with the virus and pass it on to others. Young carers have reported significant anxiety about spreading the virus to their disabled family members, with 40 per cent of young carers and 59 per cent of young adult carers saying their mental health has worsened since the outbreak.
While the vaccine rollout has now reached most vulnerable adults, many young carers are fearful that their interactions at school could bring the virus home to their already vulnerable families. And if they fall ill, who will take care of the person they care for?
Continuing to stringently ensure buildings are as Covid-safe as possible, clear and explicit communication, and ensuring their peers don’t get prematurely complacent (in or out of schools) will reassure young carers and their families. Schools may be back, but lockdown rules still apply.
Ending lockdown brings only partial relief
The ONS estimates 1 in 10 who contract the virus will continue to experience symptoms for three months or longer. Family members and friends with long Covid will require ongoing care that could turn thousands of UK children into first-time young carers. These new young carers are unlikely to self-refer to dedicated, formal support services and will carry on with their new-found responsibilities alone, unsupported and unrecognised.
School staff can play a crucial role by identifying new young carers and referring them to social services. If a student or their family member is experiencing a significant impact due to Covid, schools can play a vital role in informing them of the opportunity to receive help through a formal service.
The return to school will bring a range of emotions for all young people and for their teachers too. For young carers, the range is wider and the intensity heightened.
Throughout the pandemic, schools have invested heavily in building relationships with vulnerable young people and their families. The reopening of schools is not the end of that work, but the beginning of a new phase.