A year has now gone by since the first lockdown was announced in March 2020. It feels for me like a mixture of the longest year ever, versus ‘Wow I can’t believe it has actually been a year’.
That last week in school was a mixture of rumours and rumblings about the possibility of schools closing. Year groups were quickly gathered and dismissed from their school year and forthcoming exams midweek. Students left Years 11 and 13 knowing they would not be taking those exams, and other year groups were let out of school not knowing what would happen to their learning if school closed. I think it’s fair to say that no one had ever been in a position like this before.
For those last few days in school my main concerns were around how I would manage running a large and busy schools-based counselling service if schools were shut. Local guidance around online working and communication between school staff and children was very safeguarding orientated and quite prohibitive. As my schools closed, I had very little, if any, plan in place for how we would go forward. What stood strongly in my mind was all the children we had seen at the start of the week and booked in as normal for the following week – I felt like we were letting them down.
And so, lockdown happened, and schools had to find a way forward. How would they staff ‘childcare’ for key workers and vulnerable children, who were clinically extremely vulnerable? Which staff would be in schools? How would learning take place at home? Joe Wicks began his daily workouts for children everywhere.
For my counselling services it meant finding ways to check in with our clients of all ages that were in line with safeguarding and GDPR policies. We had to work out which team members could work from home and who could not (for varying reasons). There was a reality that some of our student counsellors would not get their 100 hours in time for June graduation. My team were all in very different individual positions, and sadly we lost a few members of our team during the first few months of lockdown.
"What stood strongly in my mind was all the children we had seen at the start of the week and booked in as normal for the following week – I felt like we were letting them down"
As a service, we looked at the online and phone therapy competence framework for the first time together. We began watching webinars and upskilling in online and phone therapy (OPT). We were given permission to use OPT in our schools. A real positive of the first lockdown was the impressive array of various free online CPD. My teams and I grabbed as much as we could.
We continued to move the service forward. There were proactive things we could do easily outside of the therapy room, like regular tweets, positivity bulletins and emails, group chats in Google classroom, surveys and forms, regular positive and warm communication with clients and those on our waiting lists. We ensured we had a robust safeguarding system in place. It was important that we linked with pastoral teams across the schools. We had clear plans and direction to support our clients and students. Our safeguarding leads supported us throughout.
We moved through spring and Easter and headed towards the summer term. At that point, we knew schools would reopen partially, and mental health had been acknowledged by the Government as a key area of work. So, it was at this point that many school counsellors and CYP counsellors resumed some face-to-face work. For me, it was a blended return, both as a therapist and supervisor. Some face-to-face sessions in schools, some online or telephone and some working from home. Schools had been thoroughly prepared for this reopening, with one-way systems, PPE and distancing in place in classrooms and rooms. My base temporarily became a large, empty classroom with open windows. I was wearing a mask and visor, but happy to be back in school and supporting my clients.
It was a huge team effort within schools, with risk assessments from school business managers in place, site managers instructing facilities teams how to make the workplace safe, and staff working together to keep everyone in schools safe. Although COVID anxiety was one of the most common issues in CYP clients at this point, for myself, I felt quite safe in a well-prepared and very supportive workplace. All staff in our schools continued to work in a child-centred manner.
My supervision had moved online during lockdown, and a year later is still online. I have found it very hard losing this routine and not having a bit of space and time out from my busy service each month, as I have always in my career enjoyed supervision as a bit of time for me. However, I appreciate seeing and speaking to my supervisor every month online and she continues to guide and hold me in the amazing way that she always did. Our next supervision will be our 100th together, and I am somewhat sad that it will not be face to face.
"The courage and professionalism shown by the members I have spoken to have shone through"
In July, I inducted our new student counsellors and volunteers electronically and prepared them to begin working face to face in our schools in September. It felt at this point as though we just had to power through and assume schools would fully reopen. The Government helpfully released the full school reopening document, and that gave all of us CYP and schools-based therapists plenty to keep us busy. In these summer weeks, we were able to contact and support all clients known to us or that had been on waiting lists and we tried to complete work and have endings with students who might not be returning. We really tried to clean up the ‘mess’ from the spring lockdown and ensure all CYP were supported, safe and happy. We then closed for the summer.
My BACP consultancy role continued to be busy throughout the summer, with nations and private schools all having differing holiday start and end dates. Many members had questions around returning to face-to-face work, workplace safety, COVID anxiety, PPE, risk assessments, blended working and workplace safety. The BACP coronavirus pages remain a great source of information for answers to such enquiries, but I have enjoyed talking to members during each lockdown as we all do such a similar role, even though often in very different circumstances. I have been personally struck by how much so many of our members have been through, including for example, having had COVID-19 themself, loss of a loved one from COVID, being furloughed, having to close their private practice, loss of a contract, or anxiety about being asked to return to work or school. The courage and professionalism shown by the members I have spoken to have shone through.
Back on site
In September, schools fully reopened. My team were on site fully for the first time since March, and some were brand new – so to date they have not seen our schools without COVID restrictions in place. The autumn term was busy. We had a huge demand for counselling from students and staff. Our rooms had changed in line with restrictions, and visors and masks were being worn, but otherwise there was a lot of normality in our school-based counselling services. BACP ran its changing landscape of college and school-based counselling webinar with Jo Holmes, Mick Cooper, Wendy Brown and me.
"What feels apparent to me is how resilient young people are and how they do just move with the times"
As the weeks progressed, our biggest challenge became learning how to deal with people being asked to isolate for 14 days. This was a reoccurring theme across the 15 weeks of that term, and we used a blended approach where we could offer remote support if a client or therapist was isolating. We saw COVID cases increase rapidly around us, and the North East spiked and was forced into a regional lockdown. Our blended approach continued, and it now feels quite normal for me to go between seeing a client face to face then online then face to face again. What feels apparent to me is how resilient young people are and how they do just move with the times: from wearing masks in school, to accessing counselling remotely, young people always impress me with their resilience and ability to change.
As Christmas approached, I think everyone in the UK was holding their breath, waiting for lockdown announcements. When they did come, it felt late in the day but meant a new year in a new lockdown and that schools would be ‘live’ online. Schools would also need to set up testing facilities and it would likely be support staff volunteering to do this.
One year on
This lockdown has been the busiest for myself and my teams. But I’ve heard this from BACP members too. It feels like the pace of life has continued in schools. Like many school staff, I have continued to go into school each week (mixed with working from home) and I know the schools in my area are not ‘closed’ but quite busy, with those students in school and staff supporting them or being in school to deliver live lessons.
My role at BACP has continued to be busy, with members talking about online competences, training, recording of sessions, safeguarding and COVID testing. I know the ethics team have remained busy too.
But here we are, one year of lockdowns while working with CYP remotely and face to face. What a year! What a challenge! I’m grateful for all the support BACP has given members such as myself over the months, and I personally continue to find the website and other BACP platforms very helpful for my own practice and teams. I feel the BACP OU online Primer was a great starter resource, shared with members last April, but still being accessed today.
I’m very grateful to have been given my COVID-19 jab, along with my peers, through my local NHS, and I feel happy to continue my face-to-face work with clients, both child and adult. Like many, I look forward to life resuming, rebuilding my school rooms, and freedom.
Listen to Sarah discuss her year in lockdown with Sally Brown, Editor of Therapy Today, on the Therapy Today podcast.