It’s a strange time to be a parent.
Most schools in the UK have been closed to all but the children of key workers since Friday 20 March, as part of the nationwide lockdown. Parents and care-givers were forced to transform into teachers overnight, tasked with the mammoth challenge of juggling homeschooling with work in many cases. And the gap between the “haves” and the “have-nots” became even more stark, as those without books or the technology needed to access educational resources were left trailing behind their peers.
The news, then, that schools in England were reopening from 1 June – albeit only for certain year groups – should have been welcome. “The education of our children is crucial for their welfare, their health, their long-term future and for social justice,“ Boris Johnson announced during a speech given last month. “So in line with the decisions taken in many other countries, we want to start getting our children back into the classroom in a way that is as manageable and as safe as possible.”
But the erosion of confidence in the government means many parents no longer trust public health advice, with 80 per cent saying they didn’t feel it was safe to send kids back to school in June according to a Mirror survey of 42,000 people. The R-number is still estimated to be between 0.7 and 0.9; the UK recently recorded the highest daily death rate in the world.
The devolved governments of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have also come to their own conclusions, and are not reopening any schools more widely from 1 June.
“The government keeps saying they’re following the science – but they won’t show us the science,” says Ryan Keane, an engineering inspector from just outside Bath. He’s decided against sending his four school-age children back until the guidelines are clear and proven.
“I’m more worried about risk than anything else,” he tells The Independent. “The virus is so new, I’m not sure what long-term effects it might have on children. We haven’t been furnished with any clear guidelines, and we don’t know yet if the school can demonstrate that they’re able to follow the ones that are in place.”
It would seem that many schools agree with Ryan’s assessment. A BBC Breakfast survey of 150 councils found that only 20 said they were advising schools to open more widely on 1 June, while a further 15 said they would not be advising schools to open their doors to the recommended year groups. Some 68 per cent said they couldn’t guarantee primary schools would reopen to Reception, Year 1 and Year 6.
One parent affected by this is writer and editor Ellen Himelfarb who, unlike Ryan, was keen to see her 11-year-old return to school, and has been left bitterly disappointed by the decision not to reopen.
“The school was dangling the possibility that things would resume after half term. Then there were rumours swirling around that it wouldn’t be 1 June but 8 June. And then the email came – ‘sorry, it’s just going to be reception’. I’m gutted for her.”
Ellen’s daughter, along with the rest of her year 6 cohort, will begin going to secondary school next year. She’s chosen a different school to her best friends; the summer term would have been their last chance to spend quality time together before they all disperse.
There were tears on the day it was announced that schools were closing. There were tears, too, when Ellen had to tell her daughter that she wouldn’t be returning for the foreseeable. Zoom, though a helpful tool, has not been the same as meaningful face-to-face interactions with friends; Google Classroom doesn’t make up for the lack of secondary school transition preparation from a beloved teacher.
They’re not returning to a school they will recognise
It’s why Gemma Taylor from Ramsgate has decided to send her 11-year-old daughter back to school, despite originally being against the idea. “She had a bit of a moment and with tears explained to us just how much she misses a solid routine,” says Gemma. “I think the social and mental health implications for her at the delicate age she is have made us realise that returning to some sort of normality needs to take priority.”
However, even for those schools that are reopening, life will be a long way from “normal”.
“I’m very concerned about the psychological safety of children coming back to school,” says Amelie*, a primary school teacher in Kent. “They’ve already been through so much trauma – they’ll be afraid of strangers and touching people and germs and invisible foes – and then school, which was a safe space, will be totally different. It won’t look the same, it won’t feel the same, they won’t necessarily be in the same classroom or with the adults they know really well.”
Amelie’s school is adopting the “bubble” method, whereby children only spend time with the other people in their bubble – around 10-15 other children, one teacher and one TA – with measures introduced to ensure they don’t come into contact with anyone else. All equipment will have to be disinfected every night, all soft play and furnishings will be removed, and children can bring nothing in and take nothing out of school – including books.
“It’s going to be completely alien to students and staff,” agrees Sylvia*, a head of department at a Surrey secondary school. “I think it’s going to be very daunting for everyone. They’re not returning to a school they will recognise.” Lunchtimes, toilet breaks, pick-ups and drop-offs will all have to be managed; there will be fewer desks, all set 2m apart, with a space at the front for the teacher, who can no longer walk freely around the classroom.
“If I’m totally honest, I would feel more comfortable if we waited until September,” she adds. “Children (and adults!) find social distancing extremely difficult, and for this reason I do feel concerned about having a larger number of students on site.”
Part of the resistance from teachers’ unions to reopen has stemmed from the confusion of constantly changing government guidelines – more than 40 guidance documents about reopening have been issued to schools in the last month, some of which contradict each other. “It’s very overwhelming,” says Amelie.
There are also concerns over students’ and teachers’ safety, with the National Education Union (NEU) having called strenuously for ministers to rethink the choice to send children back at this stage.
Lauren* from Lincolnshire, who is a secondary school teacher and a mother, is dreading the return to school for both her child and herself. “I’m really, really nervous about it. My husband and I are both teachers, and every time term starts, we both pick up all sorts of bugs from the kids. What’s to say I’m not going to pick up coronavirus and bring it home, or my child won’t?”
I can’t imagine the heartbreak of going into a classroom and seeing a gap where a child should be
To Lauren, the government’s target of reopening schools now feels “arbitrary”: “It’s like we’re expendable,” she says. “We’re painted as ‘lefty moaners’, as troublemakers, when actually we’re just cautious and we do these jobs because we care about people. Imagine going in and giving something to a student, and them getting seriously ill – how do you live with that? I can’t imagine the heartbreak of going into a classroom and seeing a gap where a child should be.”
Faced with so much conflicting messaging – and the impossible task of balancing safety with children’s need for stability and education – it’s hard for parents and teachers alike to know what the right way forward is. But one thing’s for certain: the reverberations of this pandemic will be felt by the country’s children and young people for years to come.
*Names have been changed