When couples vow to look after each other “in sickness and in health”, few are expecting anything other than health, but the commitment is there. It is the same with schools – we need to support the school community through any sickness or challenge, whether it comes in the form of a death, seasonal flu or an institutional trauma, and success relies on everyone working together. This collective efficacy is achieved because together we are motivated by the positive outcome, all doing our bit to make it happen.
In the present pandemic there is a silent matter festering in the background – the hidden impact on our mental health. A broken leg can be seen and wins sympathy, but a worried or depressed mind is not so obvious and may not get such attention, as people are expected to ‘pull themselves together’ and get through it. At Verdala International School we are closely monitoring our students’ well-being and trying to offer services to support anyone in whom anxiety is building up.
During the lockdown last spring, our older students were able to stay connected through social media networks, but it was harder for the younger ones; they all desperately wanted to get back to school as they missed seeing each other in person. Despite the many new rules, it was evidently worth being back at school in September.
Recent surveys indicate that our students are now in a good place and have adapted to the changes. While we have a small number of students learning remotely, most are physically at school, and despite some two-week disruptions they appear to have accepted this strange on/off mode.
It is a different picture with the adults at our school, which perhaps is connected to a more realistic understanding of the enormity of it all. Staff may be afraid of catching the virus, and this adds to anxiety at the workplace when a member of the community is in quarantine. There is a marked difference in people’s behaviour when they are acquainted with someone who becomes ill.
An important part of being a parent is talking to other parents
Teachers are being very brave; they do not have the option to work from home; they are essential workers. However, they take comfort in the protocols in place and get on with the job. So far, this has paid off, as the students regularly sanitise, do not share materials and are staying apart. Anxiety may also grow if they are worried about a family member or friend.
But mental health symptoms may emerge from working hard every day, and it can also lead to burnout. No one wants to fall apart at work; and most of us succeed in putting our best foot forward most of the time; yet sometimes the pressure can become overwhelming and impacts our health and coping strategies.
At Verdala International School we are trying to care for our staff by being open about well-being and offering support. In addition, we have offered well-being days to any members of our team who need to take a break and reboot so that they can continue to manage the many tasks demanded of them.
The parent network is another casualty of this COVID year. Parents are socially isolated as they are not allowed on the school premises. So the usual community events are no longer possible, and there are no casual meet-ups at the school gate. This is particularly hard for new parents at a school. We are trying to find workarounds and offer parent-Zooms but they do not allow for that informal connection that builds relationships. An important part of being a parent is talking to other parents.
In a recent session, a parent voiced the general feeling of being “sick of COVID” – aren’t we all! It is tiring dealing with all the rules and anxieties. However, as I often tell my staff, this won’t last forever. Collectively we need to focus on the light at the end of the tunnel; we will get our students back full-time, we will be able to share pens and paper again and take those masks off. In sickness and in health means managing the rough times to reach the good times and keep reaching out to support each other.
Totty Aris, head, Verdala International School, Pembroke