Breaking the news of a death related to Covid-19
When an unexpected and tragic event happens within a school community, the information has to be passed on to staff, governors, children and their parents/carers. The guidance that follows is designed to support the Head Teacher and their staff to communicate the bad news to their pupils. It is intended for instances when the news has to be imparted rapidly before other agencies have been contacted or are able to support the school.
A quick- reference flow chart of actions is presented first followed by the following sections:
- What to say and how to say it - telling a child about a death
- The death of staff member
- The days that follow
Flow chart of actions
Mobile phones and electronic communication mean that news travels very fast. Children and young people often know about bad news more rapidly than adults and, in the process of communication, incorrect information and unfounded opinions may quickly be established.
- Communicate the facts to children as best they are known
- Be decisive and clear
- Ensure children have a chance to talk to adults, virtually
Deciding what to say
Before a school communicates with their pupils it is important that there is agreement about what they are going to say so that all the pupils are told the same thing.
It is essential that pupils are given the facts in order to counteract rumour and avoid blame being apportioned. What may be divulged should be discussed with any close relatives of those involved in the incident.
- Research indicates that facts about the situation should be given to small groups or individuals simultaneously
- With social distancing restrictions, consider alternative ways to do this e.g. a statement on school website
In general, a factual account should be given without going into details that would be unnecessary and/or distressing. Above all it is important to be honest.
Supporting children of all ages to understand the news
The way in which the facts are communicated depend upon the age and developmental stage of the children. The language used should be age appropriate, allowing the child to fully understand what has been said and to be able to think about and make sense of the information. A narrative account will help this process.
When children do not understand or there are gaps in the story, they tend to fill the gaps or try to make sense of what they have heard by using their existing knowledge of the world. This may result in fears and worries. It is therefore very important to check that the children have understood what they have been told.
Always answer children as honestly as possible. If a child asks a question to which the answer is not known then they should be told this. It may be that the same question will be asked several times as the answer may be difficult to accept. Ensure that responses are consistent.
Allowing Children and Young People to say how they feel
Allow sufficient time for pupils to say how they feel and reassure them that whatever the feelings this is fine. It may be helpful to explain that in incidents such as this people may experience a range of feelings such as anger, sadness, fear or even not feeling anything in particular.
Adults should not feel concerned if they are also upset.
The death of a member of staff will have a significant impact upon the wellbeing of a school. There is likely to be an initial sense of disbelief and a desire for people to talk to each other.
In the present situation, with Covid-19, it is important to consider how the death is communicated so that (with the permission of the next of kin) all staff are made aware at a similar time and receive a consistent message. This could be through Senior Leaders phoning middle management to cascade the information down to colleagues or a sensitively worded email/letter from the Head. Once the information has been communicated internally to then think about how the governors, pupils and parents will be informed.
Once the situation has been communicated, to then identify who will liaise with the next of kin and how information relating to the funeral will be shared (in the present situation it may be that no-one or only one person is able to attend from the school). Next to think about any staff members who may be vulnerable and identify link people who can support them.
To be aware that staff (especially those close to the person) are likely to find it hard to concentrate, may have a need to talk and may become upset. This is a normal reaction to a death and allowances need to be put into place to enable the adults concerned to mourn for their colleague.
Over the coming days, keep children and staff up to date with what is happening. In the present circumstances this could be through a dedicated page on the schools’ website.
Research suggests that structure and routine are reassuring following a bereavement. This is clearly an issue at present and therefore any structure that can be temporarily implemented (such as regular updates to a web page) may be beneficial.
Identify Vulnerable Students and Staff
Within any school there are likely to be pupils and staff who are more vulnerable than others. Therefore it is important that the Senior Leadership Team has up to date knowledge on who these people are and relevant steps are put in place to support them. This could be through allocating a member of staff who makes contact with a small group of pupils on a regular basis over the ensuing weeks. With vulnerable staff members, ensure their line manager makes regular contact and checks on their emotional wellbeing.
Returning to School
When schools re-open, remember the support needs of bereaved children. This could include allocating a key person to them who can liaise and communicate with the child and the family before they start back to school as well as having a special assembly or class circle time session, in order to enable pupils and staff to think about the deceased.