Supporting a pupil with cancer during the COVID-19 pandemic – a guide for schools
School attendance for young cancer patients is important. It can make an enormous difference to their mental health, how they cope with cancer treatment, their resilience, and their ability to get on with life after treatment ends. Supporting pupils with cancer often causes anxiety and concern amongst school staff, which is likely to be heightened since the Coronavirus pandemic.
Are children and young people on cancer treatment more at risk from COVID-19?
Children and young people with cancer are at no greater risk of getting coronavirus than other children and young people. They do not appear to get severe forms of COVID-19 even if they become affected with it during treatment. Often they’ll show no signs or symptoms of it at all. This is the rationale for allowing children with cancer to return to school when it is clinically appropriate for the individual child to do so.
How do we know this?
At the start of the pandemic all young cancer patients were advised to shield. This is because little was known about the virus and its effects. Cancer and public health researchers across the world have monitored and analysed data throughout the pandemic, and shared their findings. These have informed the UK’s approach to lift shielding from groups who have been found to be at signifcantly less risk of severe covid infections than first predicted.
Is it safe for a child on cancer treatment to attend school while the Coronavirus is still in the community and no vaccine is available yet?
Most children and young people with cancer will be able to return to school during treatment. The clinical team will advise the family on the right time for the child to return.
Ultimately COVID-19 is just another infection that families of a child with cancer must be mindful of. This is alongside chicken pox, measles, herpes, diarrhoea, vomiting bugs, and flu. All these can have extreme consequences for children with cancer. The measures advised by the Government to reduce the risks of spreading coronavirus in schools will also help prevent the spread of these other infections. So it’s actually safer than ever for children on cancer treatment to attend school now.
What would prevent a child with cancer returning to school?
There has always been a small number of children at certain points in their treatment, where attending school isn’t recommended. In these cases it’s likely that the child wouldn’t feel well enough to attend school anyway.
Terms like ‘shielding’ and ‘extremely vulnerable’ hadn’t been used in cancer services before Covid-19. But it’s this small group of children who would have been shielded as extremely vulnerable during the pandemic. For them, returning to school is still not appropriate. This is ‘normal’ cancer care, rather than a reaction to COVID-19.
Clinicians will guide the family on whether their child can return to school. This will be based on individual assessments of the child and the impact of the treatment on their immune system and general health.
The educational needs of these children still needs consideration and action. This may include support from hospital schools or home tuition and remote learning technologies.
How can schools support pupils with cancer returning to school?
Once the child is able to return to school, an Individual Health Care Plan (IHCP) is a helpful tool to support the process. For many children, an IHCP will only be needed for the short-term. But children with brain tumours who have longer term cognitive or motor deficits may need longer term plans and / or special educational needs assessments.
A staged return can be helpful as the child rebuilds their energy levels. Flexible adjustments may be needed as fatigue is a known consequence of treatment. You’ll find further advice on how to support a pupil to return in our My student has cancer article, or CCLG’s booklet Supporting your pupil after a cancer diagnosis.
Once the child is back it’s important to develop effective communication channels with the child’s parents or carers. If the child becomes unwell at school or comes into contact with a pupil with an infectious illness, the parents / carers need to be contacted as soon as possible. This is so they can manage the situation with support of their healthcare team.