Why we can’t zoom our way out of the C19 crisis

Graham Duxbury
Wednesday, May 27, 2020

In common with many organisations Groundwork has been busily adapting the way it delivers services and support for young people to mitigate the impacts of lockdown.

The speed with which this has been done, and the creativity that has been demonstrated by practitioners in the process, have both been remarkable. Online resources have been created, social media broadcasts developed, text networks established and safeguarding procedures adapted to accommodate.

This has allowed project delivery to continue, and in some cases be extended to reach more young people who wouldn’t ordinarily have engaged in physical sessions. In turn, this has enabled funds to keep flowing to ensure organisational viability. Necessity truly has been the mother of invention and, like the rest of the sector, we have already started considering which of these innovations should be embedded as business as usual in the ‘new normal’.

As we emerge from the first phase of the pandemic, and count the cost of the measures put in place to combat it, there will be a temptation to see a ‘default to digital’ as being one of the ways to cope with the coming economic storm.

We know that the support needs of young people will have increased considerably. Learning has been disrupted for all and some will struggle to settle back into school routines. Many young people will have felt trapped in difficult or dangerous households and some will be grieving lost relatives. Those in insecure work before lockdown are likely to be at the back of the queue for jobs as the economy gets back on its feet. The mental health impacts of the crisis could scar a generation.

At the same time, the resources currently available to meet this need are likely to be woefully insufficient. Local government is facing a £5bn black hole, public health and the NHS will continue to be stretched as they work through treatment backlogs and prepare for further waves of infection, and many lottery and charitable funders have brought forward funds for the immediate relief effort, meaning little longer-term development work is underway. The mood music from government has shifted from ‘whatever it takes’ to ‘we need to share the burden’ and most recently ‘we should be braced for more tough times to come’.

As we work our way through this we need to be mindful of the lessons we’ve learnt over many years about what works in supporting young people at times of crisis in their life. Top of that list for me are time and the patient support of trusted adult role models. Both are difficult to deliver by text or Zoom. Notwithstanding the fact that there is a significant cohort of young people who are excluded from online support activities, part of the art and science of youth work (and teaching for that matter) is being able to read signals, to understand body language, to hear what’s not being said, and to gain a fuller understanding of what’s going on in the background. Without these cues it’s more difficult to know when to support, when to push and when to call in reinforcements.

Communication in all its forms is critical to building trust and confidence. Being connected is not the same as being committed, being present doesn’t always mean you can participate. Just because the mute button has become our friend that doesn’t mean that being seen but not heard is desirable. There will be many challenges for the sector to grapple with in the months ahead, and finding our way back to being in the same room as those who need our support will be one of the biggest but most important.

Graham Duxbury is chief executive of Groundwork

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