The challenge posed by coronavirus to learner and staff physical, mental and emotional wellbeing is unprecedented. In the space of only a few days, colleges moved from being physical community hubs with well-established routines to facilitating virtual connections through technology, which for many was initially daunting. At Eastleigh, our rapid transformation began on 9 March after the chief medical adviser indicated that the "delay phase" may begin in 10 to 14 days. Our coronavirus action plan is now already on version 11.
Accessible counselling for learners is offered by colleges across the country. At Eastleigh we are no different. Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, we had 132 counselling referrals this academic year, for which our team has provided over 450 therapeutic hours of support. Our learners who were accessing counselling at the time when coronavirus hit were faced with a double trauma as many were worried about the health of their family and friends, whilst also being concerned about maintaining their access to counselling.
Coronavirus: 7 way to protect your mental health
We also provide a range of support for staff that includes phone-based and face-to-face counselling, HR guidance and support, and benefits available through Perkbox.
Coronavirus: College offering online and remote support
Our initial priority for learners was to ensure a continuity of provision for those already accessing our counselling service, which we were able to implement quickly, and we could provide rapid reassurance. In addition, the team introduced daily email-based therapeutic support for any learner in need. The email-based support is not a crisis line, and the account has a permanent automatic response that states we will reply as soon as we can. It also lists our safeguarding phone number, as well as phone numbers for the Samaritans and Childline. Based on daily contact being made by learners, this new support is already proving a valuable service.
Prior to the social distancing announcement, the face-to-face staff counsellor had a number of Eastleigh clients (the college only knows the number of clients and number of appointments held). We quickly took the decision to continue this service for staff, albeit agreeing to remote contact methods. In addition to maintaining counselling continuity, we are seeking to ensure that colleagues remain connected.
For example, managers are aware of the colleagues who live on their own, or who are facing personal challenges, and are making regular contact. In our first week of remote working, staff have proactively got together online to provide mutual support. This support has resulted in groups playing board games with colleagues and their children, as well as simply having lunch together.
Prior to 23 March (a date that will go down in history for the FE sector), we had established our existing safeguarding phone service to provide 24/7 coverage for learners. Our safeguarding team (the majority of whom are also mental health first aid-trained) had also set up a rota to maintain contact with those in need. Prior to government guidance, we also took the decision to reinstate Education Maintenance Allowance for our free school meals learners, as we wanted to ensure that they would have sufficient funds to be fed for seven days. For this period, we are paying directly into bank accounts to allow contactless payments to be made.
Having reflected and sought feedback on our first week of online delivery, we have issued additional safeguarding guidelines for staff working from home. This guidance includes simple things like ensuring that backgrounds are not overly personal, nor inappropriate, and that only work accounts are to be used for contacting groups of learners by video. We’ve also said that when providing feedback by text, the chat functionality should be used within Google Hangouts or Microsoft Teams so that there is a record of the conversation to safeguard staff and learners alike.
Positivity in uncertain times
In the face of a global pandemic, our sector has shown immense creativity, teamwork and resilience. Like colleges across the country, we are working tirelessly to provide a safe, supportive, flexible and effective online learning experience for our communities. At the end of the first week and as we face an uncertain period ahead, I couldn’t be prouder of the whole team, who have typified our values, and exemplified all of what is great about FE.
Paul Cox is chief executive and principal (designate) at Eastleigh College