‘It’s been tough’: parents react to plan to reopen England’s schools

With schools due to reopen next week as Covid lockdown rules ease, families express mixed feelings about sending their children back

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.”

Eileen and her two children, aged seven and five.
Eileen and her two children, aged seven and five. Photograph: Eileen

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.
Jason Shearer has three children aged 14, 17 and 19. Photograph: Jason Shearer

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’

Lauren Nolan and her four-year-old son.
Lauren Nolan and her four-year-old son. Photograph: Lauren Nolan

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.

(March 8, 2021)  Step 1, part 1

In effect from 8 March, all pupils and college students returned fully. Care home residents could receive one regular, named visitor. 

(March 29, 2021)  Step 1, part 2

In effect from 29 March, outdoor gatherings allowed of up to six people, or two households if this is larger, not just in parks but also gardens. Outdoor sport for children and adults allowed. The official stay at home order ended, but people encouraged to stay local. People still asked to work from home where possible, with no overseas travel allowed beyond the current small number of exceptions.

(April 12, 2021)  Step 2

In effect from 12 April, non-essential retail, hair and nail salons, and some public buildings such as libraries and commercial art galleries  reopened. Most outdoor venues can reopen, including pubs and restaurants, but only for outdoor tables and beer gardens. Customers will have to be seated but there will be no need to have a meal with alcohol.

Also reopen are settings such as zoos and theme parks. However, social contact rules still apply here, so no indoor mixing between households and limits on outdoor mixing. Indoor leisure facilities such as gyms and pools can also open, but again people can only go alone or with their own household. Reopening of holiday lets with no shared facilities is also allowed, but only for one household. Funerals can have up to 30 attendees, while weddings, receptions and wakes can have 15.

(May 17, 2021)  Step 3

From 17 May people can be able to meet indoors in groups of up to six or as two households, or outdoors in groups of up to 30 people. People can also choose whether to socially distance with close family and friends, meaning that they can sit close together and hug. In care homes, residents can have up to five named visitors and be entitled to make low risk visits out of the home.

People can meet in private homes, or in pubs, bars and restaurants, which will all be able to reopen indoors. Weddings, receptions and other life events can take place with up to 30 people. The cap on numbers attending funerals will depend on the size of the venue.

Most forms of indoor entertainment where social distancing is possible will also be able to resume, including cinemas, museums and children’s play areas. Theatres, concert halls, conference centres and sports stadia will have capacity limits in place.

Organised adult sport and exercise classes can resume indoors and saunas and steam rooms will reopen. Hotels, hostels and B&Bs in the UK will allow overnight stays in groups of up to six people or two households.

People will also be able to travel to a small number of countries on the green list and will not have to quarantine on return.

Pupils will no longer be expected to wear face coverings in classrooms or in communal areas in secondary schools and colleges as a result of decreasing infection rates. Twice weekly home testing will remain in place. School trips with overnight stays will also now be possible.

(June 21, 2021)  Step 4

No earlier than 21 June, the government had planned that all legal limits would be removed on mixing, and the last sectors to remain closed, such as nightclubs, would reopen. Large events would be able take place. However, the prime minister has said that the rise of the B.1.617.2 variant of coronavirus first detected in India may threaten this date, and health secretary Matt Hancock said it will not be confirmed before 14 June whether the government plans to stick to the timetable.

Peter Walker Political correspondent and Rachel Hall

“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.”


Molly Blackall and Rachel Obordo

The GuardianTramp

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