Last week I acknowledged the varying degrees of excitement and trepidation experienced by our young people as they approached the school gates for the first time since March, and there has been a palpable sense of relief from some to be doing something as normal as sitting in a classroom next to their friends. However, there have also been concerns from teachers, and the recent community outbreak in Lanarkshire has proven that things are not normal: the virus is still out there.
I, like many others, want young people to feel safe and comfortable while at school. I know that local authorities, school staff and many others have been working flat out to achieve this but there are further steps the Scottish Government can take. The Scottish Greens have long been calling for routine testing for school staff. The countries which have eliminated COVID-19 have robust testing programmes to which they have largely credited their success.
We all want school to be a positive, nurturing environment and schools having access to routine testing is a vital public health measure but it will also give staff and young people the confidence to enter the classroom without fear. Everyone within our schools should feel safe: teachers, pupils, support staff, cleaners, janitors and all those who work so hard to keep our schools running. Janitors and cleaners, to take an example, have been working to adjust to new cleaning regimes and safety standards. Access to testing would provide another layer of protection on top of all this hard work. Surely our school staff deserve the same safety assurances as professional footballers?
Public health measures to tackle the virus such as testing have rightly been prioritised during the outbreak but it’s clear that Covid does not only impact physical health. Lockdown has undoubtedly been a distressing time for many. Now more than ever, we need parity between mental and physical health and well-funded mental health support services which can cope with a predicted explosion in demand. As last week highlighted, the pandemic has had a huge impact on our young people. Besides the usual worries about exams, grades and the pressure of schoolwork, they have been hit by isolation and anxiety, along with fears for their loved ones’ and their own safety. Many of those who have just left school are emerging into an extremely challenging job market, with some having lost university places due to the exams fiasco. With recent studies finding that young people’s mental health worsened considerably during lockdown, we also need properly resourced youth services which young people can turn to when they’re struggling.
We also must acknowledge that social isolation poses a greater risk to some than others. There are fears that the widespread use of face masks, although necessary, may risk disadvantaging those who rely on lip reading, facial expressions and non-verbal cues to communicate. The National Deaf Children’s Society has been calling for people to wear clear face masks, so as to facilitate such communication. There are other adjustments we can make, such as writing down what we want to say and moving to areas with less noise.
Everyone’s wellbeing has been impacted by lockdown, in some way or other. In light of this, we should be asking ourselves what we can do to help people feel safe and supported. Some actions require the action of government, while others only require a small adjustment on our part. One thing has become clear during the long, lonely months of lockdown: we need each other. We must remember this in the challenging months ahead.