The whole world has felt the adverse implications of the COVID-19 pandemic, but for children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities, the aftermath of being in and out of a national lockdown for over a year has had a detrimental impact on their wellbeing. Many rely on rigid routines and a constant support network, and often school is their main source of social interaction.
Most children with Education Health and Care Plans (EHCPs) in England were still provided with a place at school during the initial lockdown, although their level of social interaction was drastically reduced.
For children and young people attending specialist school settings, staff work hard to provide them with valuable life skills for social integration. During the pandemic, class ‘bubbles’ were unable to mix, to limit the risks of infection. Schools were unable to offer valuable off-site activities, and students isolating at home were less likely to interact with virtual schooling. The already limited opportunities available to these learners were therefore reduced even further.
A case study of an autism specialist school
As part of the research for my Master’s dissertation, I developed a case study exploring the impact of the pandemic on children and young people attending an autism specialist school in West Yorkshire. I interviewed three sets of parents and the school’s head teacher. They talked about uncertainty, change in routines, and negative impact on wellbeing and mental health.
They felt that the initial Government guidance was not as applicable to families of children with special educational needs and disabilities or to specialist school settings. This led to feelings of being overlooked by the Government and the media. The head teacher reported that this did a disservice to his staff who were working tirelessly to provide a service and to support pupils and their families.
Several students had underlying health conditions and parents described the additional pressures they experienced of trying to not contract the virus. One reported that they continued to limit social interactions with friends after restrictions lifted, fearing they could pass COVID-19 on to students at the school.
Many students struggled to adapt to the new routines. Those who were offered a school place during the initial lockdown felt a lot of uncertainty from the rate of infection that caused ‘bubbles’ of children to stay at home and isolate. Ironically, many students – especially those who find social interaction difficult – found the extended time at home a happy safe space away from the rest of society. However, parents worried for how this would impact their children’s wellbeing and development as they feared it had become a routine to stay at home.
Attainment vs wellbeing
At the start of the pandemic there was increasing pressure from the Government for parents to adequately support their children’s home learning. This created worry about the implications for attainment. Parents with children who would normally attend specialist schools favoured a focus on wellbeing during a time of great uncertainty, rather than battling with their children to complete schoolwork at home.
In specialist schools, attainment is mostly characterised in terms of life skills, personal development, and social interaction, rather than solely focusing on grades and qualifications. These elements became increasingly hard to practise during the pandemic, yet the media and the Government disregarded this challenge in favour of focusing on the importance of academic success.
As the pandemic progressed, the wellbeing of students across the country started to be considered. It is imperative that wellbeing remains at the forefront for educators and decision makers as we navigate through a society learning to live with COVID-19. We must consider at what point wellbeing becomes more important than educational attainment for children and young people, and whether this is reflected in current policy and legislation.
Implications for the future
As England is transitioning to a new normal, it is important to consider how children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities will transition back into society. Individuals who found society unwelcoming or unsupportive of their needs pre-pandemic will no doubt find it even harder in a post-pandemic world, especially since their opportunities for social interaction have been limited and their routines, built up over a sustained period of time, have been disrupted.
The extent to which social integration of children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities has regressed will become increasingly apparent as we regain a sense of ‘normality’. Routines may take longer to re-establish and activities that were once enjoyed may take several attempts to learn to enjoy again.
In many ways, the pandemic has perpetuated inequalities for the families of children with special educational needs and disabilities. It can be hard to look past the rather bleak picture of the last 18 months. Often learners have a whole team of professionals advocating for their needs, but the pandemic has meant appointments being rescheduled or held virtually. Families transitioning from child to adult services during this time may have been appointed to new teams they had not even met – yet another example of how COVID-19 has impacted transitions for children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities.
We now find ourselves in a paradox: having seen a growing focus on wellbeing conversations throughout the pandemic, we now risk returning to measuring success purely in economic and attainment terms, within a policy context that ignores individuals with complex needs who require more tailored specialist provision.
The pandemic highlighted the vital work of specialist education settings in supporting children with special educational needs and disabilities, their families and carers. It has emphasised the lack of support for individuals outside of special education. Despite society returning to a new normal, these students may take longer to readjust and it is imperative that support mechanisms are in place.
Bethany is studying for a Masters in Inclusive Education at Manchester Metropolitan University. She can be contacted via the EENET office.