When Prime Minister Boris Johnson outlines plans to relax lockdown measures on Monday, any news about the reopening of secondary schools will be keenly followed. Johnson had said previously that schools’ reopening was a priority and there had been speculation that primary schools would be first to reopen from March 8. However, teachers’ unions said in a statement that opening too early could potentially be “reckless” and raise infection rates significantly.

Many teenagers are, however, desperate to go back to school for reasons such as having missed out on practical lessons, difficulties in accessing technology, too much screen time and struggles with mental health and morale.

Gabriella Thomas, who is in Year 10 in Bromley High School, said: “I just hope we can go back to school safely as soon as possible so we can get back to doing practical experiments in our classes and get back to learning in a real classroom environment again.”

Some have found it hard to concentrate during online lessons as there are too many distractions, in part due to less interactive lessons and the lack of authoritative figures to ensure compliance. Grace Tricker, who attends Bullers Wood Girls’ School, is worried about GCSEs next year and wants the prime minister to stick to his plan of opening all schools on March 8. She said: “I find it hard to focus or keep up with the work and it’s the same routine every day. I can’t see my friends or talk to people as normal. It’s just boring”.

Stress about what exactly will happen with GCSEs in 2022 is also common, as students worry if they are doing enough to help themselves in the future. Looming exams is often stressful enough for students and the general uncertainties brought on by the pandemic could further harm teenagers’ mental health.  

Some students who have felt isolated without their friends and teachers around them have sunk into a depressive or indifferent state, fuelled by not just by a lack of communication with others but also confusion and boredom. BBC recently reported that children as young as 10 were being admitted to A&E for self-harming.

There are teenagers who want to go back to school but are worried about the effect of doing so. Claire Sullivan, a Year 10 pupil at Langley School for Girls, believes that “coursework [is] being affected as some of the work has to be completed at school.” Sullivan takes music for GCSEs and her compositions must be completed in school computers so that teachers can confirm that their work is original.

Despite these difficulties, she said: “It is more important to protect the community [than going back to school] as no one wants a fourth lockdown”.

Year 10 Langley School for Boys student Charlie Davies said he hoped Johnson would announce a phased return to school as he said that “a few months ago, everyone was in at the same time and there were quite a few cases of Covid in the different year groups”.

Whether they are scared of catching the disease themselves or passing it on to an elderly family member, there is a minority of students who are reluctant to return to schools even if they reopen. Many secondary school students will have to commute and the risk of catching Covid-19 on public transport may be deemed too high for some parents, leading them to keep their children at home. The stress of getting on public transport could also affect pupils and some may feel anxious at the prospect of potentially opening themselves and their family members to the disease.

There are also students who are comfortable in lockdown and prefer this method of learning to face-to-face lessons, like a Royal Russell School Year 10 student who said that he “seems to work harder being at home, likely from comfort”. Some feel that they perform at a higher level due to the fact that they have more control over their environment.

Online learning gives students more freedom to take notes, revise and apply the information they have been handed which suit independent learners. There is also less pressure to get things done in a certain time and students face less scrutiny from peers. Negative interactions can be avoided, allowing some to focus wholly on their academics as opposed to unhealthy relationships.

The common thread among students interviewed was that seeing people, specifically their friends, is what they are most looking forward to when schools do reopen.

“I haven’t seen my friends in person for upwards of two months. It will definitely be a step towards normality, that’s for sure,” said Davies.

Lockdown is certainly straining teen relationships. Keeping in touch online is difficult, yet even the smallest interaction can be sorely missed. A large part of a friendship includes not just conversation, but physical contact and activities. It is impossible to recreate any of these online.

For some teenagers who are already shy, lockdown makes it even harder to communicate their emotions, possibly affecting their social skills and ability to talk about personal situations in the future.