After a ‘coalface’ career in social care, Dr Emma Maynard was well equipped to segue into research, specialising in the health and wellbeing of families and children living ‘complex’ lives.
It was already a fraught subject in an uncertain world – and then came COVID-19. “The impact of the pandemic has been absolutely seismic for young people,” says Dr Maynard, who has a passionate interest in the mental health and wellbeing of children, young people and their families.
“They have really understood every last millimetre of how different life has been, and how restricted and how threatening everything has felt. It is absolutely going to identify this generation.”
As a Senior Lecturer at the University of Portsmouth’s School of Education and Sociology, and School Governor at a local school in Portsmouth, Dr Maynard says the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic will be felt not just academically, but also emotionally and socially. She points out that for the youngest children who were just starting school, many of them have only known online learning, socialising in bubbles, and being unable to hug their grandparents in case they pass a deadly virus to them.
This group has experienced a real loss of learning during lockdowns, with reports of young children going back to school who can’t remember how to tie their shoelaces or eat with a knife and fork. Homeschooling was challenging for all parents, especially trying to juggle it with working from home, but some were better equipped or resourced than others, says Dr Catherine Carroll-Meehan, Head of the School of Education and Sociology.
“Where I'm concerned is with younger children, and particularly children from families where the resources may not be as great to be able to support learning at home, and where parents’ own educational experience may limit what they feel they can do with their own children,” Dr Carroll-Meehan says.
Teenage lives have been put on hold in a lot of ways. They lost all their rituals, and both the drama of those moments for them, and the frivolity that goes around it – the celebrations, the parties, the marking of time, the marking of those people in places and spaces, were all gone.
But perhaps the young people whose lives have been most altered by the pandemic were those going through key transition periods from adolescence to young adulthood, from high school to graduation and beyond.
“Every year, at that age, is so fundamental,” Dr Maynard says. “Every year of your life is so marked – before your GCSEs, and then it’s your GCSEs, and then you go to college, and then it’s your A-levels and then university.”
While the cancellation of exams – and substitution of individual teacher assessments – might be celebrated at a superficial level, its absence could have significant emotional and career consequences.
“For that group that just lost their GCSEs and A-levels, they’d been prepared for that their entire lives and it was just gone,” Dr Maynard says. There are concerns those students whose final marks were based on teacher assessments might be discriminated against in future employment because they are perceived as having not been tested with the same rigour as previous graduates.
Young people with special educational needs – for example with autism or Asperger’s syndrome, or who have experienced family trauma – have been particularly at risk of missing out, says Dr Simon Edwards, Senior Lecturer in the School of Education and Sociology.
“What we found is the gap between those young people and their learning, or their accessibility to the schools, has widened,” Dr Edwards says, even though their families have often gone to extraordinary lengths to find ways for their children to learn.
The transition back to school after the pandemic has been the most challenging point, with many of these young people experiencing major anxieties about returning to an educational environment that may not always have been well suited to them.
“All of the young people that we work with have become incredibly anxious,” he says. Dr Edwards works closely with young people using an approach called relational pedagogy. This involves a young person’s family and relationships in their learning, in a way that is tailored to their particular social and family contexts. It means he also takes on the role of helping these families navigate through and negotiate with schools in an effort to ensure these young people aren’t left behind, especially in the post-pandemic period.
Perhaps unexpectedly, the challenge of the pandemic has forced a more flexible and innovative approach to education that could benefit students in the longer term. “We've got a brilliant opportunity to think differently,” Dr Edwards says.
The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on education also haven’t all been bad. For some children, homeschooling has had its advantages, says Dr Carroll-Meehan: “There have been some studies recently that have indicated that children have been able to learn at their own pace,” she says. “Not being in school and having longer to undertake tasks that, in the classroom, they may not have the time to do probably has been an advantage to many more children than we know at this stage.”
The classroom can be quite an anxiety-provoking environment, particularly for children with special needs, so approaches such as the social bubbles that were introduced enabled those children to work with a much smaller group of children than a full classroom.
What we found is the gap between those young people and their learning, or their accessibility to the schools, has widened.
Social learning opportunities lost
However it’s not just the academic side of education that the pandemic has compromised. Social learning has also suffered. The loss of social life during lockdowns might seem trivial to adults – some of whom welcomed the opportunity for solitude – but for teenagers and young adults, that time is a period of social learning.
“Teenage lives have been put on hold in a lot of ways,” Dr Maynard says. All the usual rites of passage that accompany the transition from high school to college, to university, or a trade or the workplace, have been curtailed. “They lost all their rituals, and both the drama of those moments for them, and the frivolity that goes around it – the celebrations, the parties, the marking of time, the marking of those people in places and spaces, were all gone.”
Those times may be difficult to recover, especially as COVID-19 infection rates continue to wax and wane, new variants emerge to threaten the hardfought public health gains, and as these young people grow beyond the age when they are able to engage in those rites of passage.
All of which begs the question, how can this generation be helped or normalised? How can their educational, social and emotional wellbeing be restored to what it should have been? Dr Maynard says while children and young people are resilient, they still need help.
“We have to give time and effort in recovery,” she says. “We cannot expect our children to switch back onto normality any faster than us.” It means giving young people time and space to process the trauma of the pandemic, “in order to let it feel less threatening, less frightening”, and to enable them to acknowledge what has happened and talk about the effects it has had on them and their world.
But this requires a whole community approach, Dr Maynard says. “Schools are holding huge amounts of emotional turmoil that children have carried with them. We need to take collective responsibility and not think that it can happen during school hours.”