Vic Goddard is trying not to cry. The headteacher of Passmores academy in Harlow and star of the 2011 TV series Educating Essex is thinking about the 23 pupils and two staff at his school who have been bereaved during the coronavirus pandemic.
His greatest fear, a fear that keeps him awake at night and is making his voice tremble, is what could happen to them if he does not manage to support them adequately when they return to school. “I’m going to get upset, I’m really sorry…” he stops. “You feel dreadfully … dreadfully … There is an element of responsibility.”
He explains: “I’ve seen the impact of losing a teenage lad to suicide, and it was massive. It’s the thought of suicide. That’s really difficult for me.” He breaks off again. “What’s the impact going to be of so many parents and grandparents dying? I’ve never existed in a space where a community has lost so many people.”
Goddard has been keeping track of the number of family bereavements at Passmores for years, and knows that right now, more than 10 times as many of his pupils than usual are grieving. He knows from experience how desperate young people and their parents can become in the grip of depression and despair, and he is determined to offer his grieving students and colleagues as much help as he can. “There may be opportunities where actually we can get young people who don’t naturally open up – boys, generally – to open up.”
Although daunted by the challenge, Goddard also perceives it as a privilege. “Fear can be crippling but it can also be empowering. My fear of having a young person in school who’s dealing with something, and hasn’t got somebody to talk to, will make me work really bloody hard to give everybody somebody to talk to.”
Staff at his school, including the cleaners and midday assistants, have all been offered training from a mental health expert so they can collectively support students and be on the lookout for any safeguarding concerns that may arise.
Meanwhile at City of Birmingham school, a pupil referral unit for 464 primary and secondary school children, 13 pupils have been bereaved during the pandemic, while family members of other children have been “very ill”, says its headteacher, Steve Howell.
“There is going to be a knock-on emotional effect of that. I think it will affect the school in lots of ways. We know from our children who might have challenging behaviour anyway that when something else happens in their life, like a bereavement, it can manifest in changes in behaviour. I think that’s inevitable.”
Staff in pupil referral units are used to dealing with high emotions and difficulties, but even so, Howell is concerned about how they are going to cope. “We are education professionals, not counsellors or social workers. But getting external people in to support us at the moment is a challenge.”
Winston’s Wish, a charity that offers support for bereaved children, has seen a 413% increase in its website traffic since 23 March compared with last year. More than 10,000 people have signed up since its new free online bereavement training course, aimed at teachers and school staff, went live on 7 May.
“We’ve been getting lots and lots of requests from schools,” says Suzie Philips, a spokeswoman for the charity. Children who have been bereaved may feel particularly anxious about Covid-19 when they return to school, she says. On top of this, “they might be experiencing levels of separation anxiety and be feeling worried about leaving their surviving parent at home, in case something happens to them”.
The changes in schools may further increase this anxiety. “It might once have been a place of comfort for them. Now it might feel strange.”
There are other potential challenges facing bereaved pupils in school: restricting children and staff to a “bubble” means they will come into contact with fewer adults and friends each day, and so may have fewer people in the school they feel they can talk to, Philips says.
They may feel isolated and lonely in a socially distanced playground, and they may need explicit encouragement to open up about their feelings to an unfamiliar teacher or teaching assistant. “Staff may need to invite the child to have those conversations, if they don’t have a strong relationship with the child already. And staff may need support in preparing for that.”
Adults, she says, often worry about talking to children about death. “They worry that they can make things worse or they won’t have all the answers. We tell them: nothing you say is going to make it worse. Because often, the worst has already happened.”
Goddard plans to reassure staff that they are not expected to be experts in bereavement. “As a community, it’s important that we understand that we can’t take the pain away. We don’t have magic wands. But what we can do is listen.”
All staff are being trained in how to start conversations, face to face, with bereaved children. “We’ll see if the child wants to push the door open, or if they want to leave it closed. If they push it open, we’ll be there to talk to them. If they don’t, we will be there to notice how they’re coping.”
At the same time, there will be staff returning to school after being ill or bereaved themselves, while others will be feeling anxious about catching Covid-19 and passing it on to family members.
“Staff are coming back in and having to deal with lots of stuff they’re not used to, while also dealing with their own issues. We are going to have to support each other, and notice that sometimes this colleague has had enough; they’ve reached the wall themselves.”
A counselling service is being offered to all staff and that will continue when school returns fully in September. He will also encourage his colleagues to share the burden they face by working together to offer their pupils support.
“The first thing we’ll do is have a one-to-one with each child and try to unpick what’s gone on in their lives over the past few months. Then we’ll look at that information collectively, not individually, and go: OK, is there a group of young people who could do with extra support?”
He is considering, for example, creating a support group for children who have been bereaved during the Covid-19 outbreak, where the children can talk to and support each other, aided by the mental health coordinator.
And he will tell the student body: “This is a real opportunity to show kindness. They might be able to sit next to somebody and put their arm around their shoulder.”
Goddard is going to be placing boxes around the school where children can drop notes about things they do not feel able to tell a teacher, either about themselves or a friend. “It’s about giving them as many communication options as we can.
“The challenge is going to be noticing the difference between stroppy teenage behaviour and things you would expect to see in a bereaved young person, like confrontational behaviour or being quieter than average.”
Too often, he thinks teachers focus on what a child did, rather than why they did it. “Don’t get me wrong, the ‘what’ is important – if a kid is rude, nasty or disruptive you deal with that. But in order to understand them, so they don’t do it again, the ‘why’ is important. And actually, right now, the ‘why’ is really important.
“If there’s not a way for a young person to rationalise what’s going on, the impact on their long-term mental health is going to be huge.”
In the UK, the Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 and Papyrus can be contacted on 0800 068 4141. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international suicide helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org