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If you’re worried about the impact COVID-19 is having on your school community’s wellbeing, there are some things you can do.

Teachers stand outside talking

We are all struggling to stay up-to-date with news and recommendations on the Government’s response to COVID-19, otherwise known as coronavirus. Where possible, schools are making sensible practical changes to the way they operate, encouraging good hygiene and practising physical distancing. At the same time, many will be dealing with an anxious and confused school community. If you’re worried about the mental health impacts for your school community, there are some things you can do.

1. Stay up to date

During times of crisis, it’s important that everyone knows what information to seek out, where to find it and what sources to trust. While social media is flooded with opinions from every ‘expert’, it can be hard to determine what’s ‘good’ information and what’s unhelpful, or at worst, dangerous. Your first port of call should always be your state or territory education authority – they will have the most up-to-date information from informed and verified sources. If you want to seek out more advice, or to direct students, parents, community members or your colleagues to a reliable source, try the following:

2. Be prepared, not panicked

When we’re dealing with something far more serious than most people have ever encountered, it’s understandable that our first reaction may be to panic and start assuming the worst. But panic is rarely useful and can render us unable to plan and prepare ourselves effectively. Support your school community to take steps to protect itself. Encourage preparedness and forward planning, but do what you can to prevent a descent into panic.

3. Communicate, communicate, communicate

Nothing spreads fear and panic faster than confusion or being left in the dark. Make sure the school leaders are communicating with students, families and staff on a regular basis. There’s nothing too small to bother with – for example, if you decide to cancel a year group meeting, let everyone know and explain why it’s been cancelled. When faced with a lack of knowledge, people are more likely to create reasons for themselves, which will almost always be more far-fetched than the truth. Open lines of communication leave everyone feeling at ease and will assure the school community that the situation is in hand.

4. Soften the blow of missed opportunities

Events, gatherings and long-anticipated events are being cancelled left, right and centre, and there’s an overwhelming feeling of disappointment that comes with that. Even when we know it’s for the best, missing out on an event that we’ve looked forward to can be a real challenge for even the most resilient person. Where possible, try to limit the negative impact of cancelled events by quickly scheduling a date for later in the year or providing a virtual alternative. While the school disco may have been postponed, you could work with your class to put together a playlist that they can listen to at home instead. While a virtual disco isn’t the same, it will be a unique, memorable and fun experience for students. It will help make the weeks of physical distancing a bit more bearable.

5. It’s okay to say ‘I/we don’t know’

You’re probably finding that everyone has a thousand and one questions about COVID-19. It’s also natural that most of these questions will be directed to teachers and school staff. Students and parents will be worried about the implications of cancelled sports trials, exams and school closures. Some of these questions may have easy and logical answers, while others won’t. It’s okay to say that you don’t know what’s going to happen. The situation is changing hour-by-hour, and it’s still too early to predict what next week will hold. You don’t need to be an expert on coronavirus, so don’t feel pressured to have all the answers.

6. Know the protocol

It’s important that all schools develop a protocol for what they will do in the event of a suspected or confirmed case of COVID-19. Make sure the protocol is in line with expert recommendations, such as those from the Australian Government Department of Education and communicate these to the entire school community. If a member of the school becomes infected with COVID-19, swift action will be crucial in controlling the spread. It’s vital that everyone knows what to do for a coordinated response. Having the plan in place and sharing it with students, parents and staff will go a long way to addressing concerns.

7. Discuss COVID-19 with your students

Young people are often left out of ‘scary’ conversations such as those happening now all over the world about COVID-19. It’s easy to assume that they are too young to understand or care, and that as adults it’s our responsibility to protect them from the bad stuff. But this can cause anxiety in young people, who may feel they have no control over or understanding of what’s happening around them. Again, open communication keeps everyone from spiralling into panic and fear. Ask your students if they have any questions about what’s happening around the world, discuss the school’s plans for dealing with an outbreak, and run through the recommendations on good hygiene and physical distancing and why they are so important. Knowledge is power in these situations, and young people have the right to understand the nature of this global crisis.

We’re all doing the best we can with the information we have to hand. Take care of yourself in the midst of this crisis and encourage others to do the same.

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