All schools in England are expected to open on Monday, though secondary schools will be allowed to stagger pupils’ return to the classroom over two weeks, depending on their capacity to test children.
Parents have spoken to the Guardian about their relief that children will be returning to normality, as well as their concerns about safety and the possibility of a new rise in coronavirus rates.
‘It’s not normal for a child to be isolated’
“It’s massively positive,” said Eileen, a 37-year-old parent of two who lives in London, “My kids have been talking for weeks about going back to school. I think the main part of that is the social contact: they haven’t seen their friends, or anyone else, since 18 December. My seven-year-old has expressed that he feels lonely. My five-year-old says she wants to see her friends, not on Zoom. It’s not normal for a child to be isolated.”
With Eileen and her partner both working full time, home schooling young children has been difficult, resulting in “5am starts, and catching up at the weekend and in the evenings on missed work”. The return to school will allow them to get back to their old routine and start working at a normal time, reclaiming some of the evenings and weekends they have missed out on.
“It has been tough juggling meetings, home school, food preparation, being our children’s best friend as well as parents, and making sure everyone gets enough exercise,” she said. “We have a modest three-bedroom house. It’s small, but [before the pandemic] it was everything we needed. Now with two adults working from home, and two kids trying to home school, it’s not enough.”
Eileen, who preferred not to share her last name, said that while the family were very cautious and “responsible” in following the Covid rules, they were more concerned about the impact of the children being away from school than in it.
“We take it very seriously in terms of not wanting to catch and spread the virus, but as we’re in lockdown we’re not seeing anyone anyway,” she said. “As time has gone on, we’ve realised that the disadvantages of our kids being out of school were a greater risk than catching Covid.”
‘Children are becoming less motivated with every passing week’
Jason Shearer, who lives in York, thinks schools “should never have been shut at all”. The father of three teenagers feels that prolonged absence from schools has led to young people being more at risk of self-harm, anxiety and loneliness.
“I understand that the perceived risk is terrifying for some people,” said the 50-year-old businessman. “However children are to be tested endlessly before they go to school, Covid rates are low, and teachers are opening windows at every opportunity – so what exactly are we afraid of?”
Shearer, who has children aged 14, 17 and 19, finds it “quite frustrating” to see people worrying about Covid so much. “The difference between the haves and the have nots is growing and there’s an endemic problem of mental health. We’ve lost sight of the real risk of keeping children off school.”
He said his children were more lucky than most but had not found it easy. “My 14-year-old daughter sits in front of her screen in a dressing gown then watches Marvel at lunch. We’re constantly trying to motivate all our children and get them out of the house to exercise.
“At the beginning of the pandemic you could be positive for a period of time, but it’s harder in the winter. Children are becoming less motivated with every passing week.”
Shearer normally works from home and is looking forward to not home schooling any more. “It will be nice not being under each other’s feet. The impact on me hasn’t been huge but it will be good to use the desktop computer now that my daughter won’t need it. I’ll be extremely glad to see the children get out of the house and get their school uniform on – if it still fits! I might even put the bunting out.”
‘I’d feel better if teachers had been vaccinated’
Others are more cautious. For 33-year-old Lauren Nolan, who lives in Poole, Dorset, the looming return on 8 March was a cause for excitement and worry. She has a two-year-old child who goes to nursery one day a week, and a four-year-old in reception year who has been learning from home.
“Home schooling has been really hard at times, especially because we’ve got a toddler as well. The positives are that he will get to see his friends. He’s been really looking forward to it, and he’s missed his teachers,” she said. “The main positive is that I don’t have to home school. This morning he said, ‘that’s not how my teacher does it’, but I’m trying my best.”
However, Nolan, who is on furlough, is concerned about how disruptive the return to school might be for her four-year-old child.
“I’m quite worried he might be really tired and quite emotional in the first week or so, because it’s kind of impossible for us to keep a school routine at home at his age and with his brother around,” she said. “He’s been wearing fancy dress, and sometimes PJs, and he’s allowed to bring one teddy to class. So the school routine might be a bit of a shock.”
Nolan is looking forward to spending some one-on-one time with her toddler once her four-year-old returns on Monday. “At the risk of sounding a bit boring, we might just go for a walk or go to the playground. It will be nice to get back to a routine. My husband walks our four-year-old to school and I pick him up in the afternoon so it will be good to get back to some sense of normality.”
While Nolan has had coronavirus, during which time the boys did not become infected, she still has concerns about the implications of reopening schools on the rates of the virus in the community.
“I’d feel better if teachers had been vaccinated, for the community, really,” she said. “I don’t want another spike and get [the reopening roadmap] pushed back because of the schools reopening.”
‘I won’t be sending my children back’
However, for some the risk feels too great. In the West Midlands, Naheed “cannot believe” schools in England will all be opening at the same time.
The mother of three said she would not be sending her children, aged between nine and 17, to school on Monday owing to concerns about coronavirus rates and new variants.
“Vaccines are great but they are not the entire answer to dealing with Covid,” she said. “Parents want their children to be educated but I’m standing firm against putting any teachers, parents and children’s lives at risk.”
Naheed, who preferred not to share her last name, said measures such as a phased return [like in Scotland and Wales], reduced class sizes, a rota for online and in-person teaching, and classrooms with proper ventilation needed to be implemented to satisfy her concerns.
“We are a clinically vulnerable family and my children don’t want to go back to school because they’re petrified of catching Covid and passing it on,” she said. “Online learning is not as bad as it’s made out to be. Given sufficient funding, parents and teachers could manage it well.
“I cannot believe how reckless the government has been in dealing with the pandemic. Why can’t we get down to zero cases? They can fine me if they want but I won’t be sending my children back.”