The back to school post you knew was coming.

Heyyyy! Well, the time has come and summer is almost at it’s end. I mean it ended about two weeks ago if we’re discussing the fine British weather, but I have a more pressing matter that I want to write about today and that, dear friends, is the topic of schools reopening.

Yes, I know I wrote this post here about our feelings on the return to school, but this one hits a bit different because I’ve spent the last couple of weeks talking to other parents, researching facts and, well, I guess it’s all a bit more real now. For some of us, back to school day is Tuesday next week, for other’s (me) it’s the week after and I can’t help but feel more than the usual anxiety about back to school.

A couple of days ago I popped a post up on instagram stories asking my community how they felt about return to schools, and what their overall feelings were. Out of hundreds of messages, the overwhelming majority seemed to feel anxious about return to school, but intending to return their children for one reason or another. The majority response was that children would be returning to schools, but much like myself and Adam, parents would be monitoring the situation and deciding what to do on an almost day to day basis. There was a lot of positive comments about schools and how wonderful the staff were, endless praise for the teachers and the efforts that had been made to ensure the children’s safety. Let’s be honest, never has praise been more warranted – teachers and school staff have done such an amazing job throughout this pandemic, they have spent their time teaching key worker children, whilst simultaneously taking on the additional role of educating remotely, all the while being belittled or forgotten by the media. Teachers have been referred to as lazy and enjoying “time off” whilst the rest of the key workers slog away… yet I have been told by several teachers that they have been advised to write wills in the build up to the return to school. Something doesn’t add up there does it?

So why the anxiety about return to schools? We’ve all seen the beaches and the parks. The majority of us have started to get out and about again, I know I have, so whats the big issue? The kids are all going to social distance when they return to school, there are these bubble things (don’t start me on how utterly useless they are – I have three children at primary school, each one is in a different bubble… do I ensure they stay in bubbles at home too or is COVID-19 only operating between 9 and 3 now?). Kids don’t even get it… right? Well actually, wrong. In the US cases of COVID-19 among children are increasing, and subsequently so are the numbers in hospital. 1 in every 3 hospitalised COVID19 patients in the USA ends up in Intensive Care, adult or child. Between August 6th and 20th, over 70,000 American children tested positive, an increase of 21% on previous reporting periods.

Now you might roll your eyes and say “Harriet, that is America, miles and miles away from us, how is that relevant?”. I think it IS relevant, it shows us that children aren’t immune to this in the way that we have been encouraged to believe, children can and do catch the virus and they can, and do, require treatment. Whilst the risk of them dying is still low, very few people are willing to talk about the effects that having this virus can have on them a.) long term, and b.) within the period that they are ill. Have you ever been really ill? It’s some scary shizzle to realise you are actually *really* breakable. That must have an impact on mental health for children? If that isn’t bad enough, for every child that catches the virus, there will be a parent or carer who will need to look after them, perhaps stay with them in hospital – that parent or carers chances of recovering aren’t as high. It has an effect. Myself and Adam are young parents, both fit and healthy (glide over my coffee obsession there guys), but that isn’t the same for all.

Whilst we’re nattering health, what about the teachers? I said it in this post back in June when the schools were reopening to “test drive” return to school before the summer holidays, and I will say it again. What about the teachers? If we know that children respond to social distancing and good hygiene practice with a small nod and then continue on with licking each other, is it really safe for teachers who are being told wear a mask… don’t wear a mask… stay 2 metres away… don’t stay 2 metres away. Is it practical for teachers who face returning to an Autumn/Winter term with the advice to send any child with symptoms home and they can’t return until they have been tested… symptoms that are the same as a common cold? I mean, come on. I’ve already been told by Scottish parents within my community that schools have been back a couple of weeks and already there are lots of children off sick, missing school whilst they wait to see if it’s a sniffle or the virus, meanwhile their parents are missing work and ultimately risking discipline from their employers. I’ve been advised by teachers within my community that school reopening advice from the government is murky at best and down right contradictory at worst. It has been about as helpful as a chocolate fireguard and ultimately up to the head teachers and staff to loosely impose the restrictions that they feel will work best for them, something that the majority appear to have done with astounding competence. It is to the staff within our schools that we are placing our trust, not our Government.

On Thursday the UK added 1,522 cases (highest figure since June 9th), cases are already increasing, the numbers are there for all to see. 767 people were in hospital on Tuesday 25th. Let that number sink in. By contrast, deaths seem to be decreasing – which is wonderful, something we can only hope continues, but we can’t ignore that with increasing cases, this is unlikely to remain.

The government have told us that they won’t be closing schools again, ultimately because of the havoc it causes to the economy. Yet with all I have said above, I can’t help but feel that we should be given the choice to send our children back to school, without the looming risk of fines. I lost count of the mothers who messaged me to say that they are stay at home parents and would happily keep their kids at home until the winter was over, continuing to homeschool as best they could, but they couldn’t afford the fines. Fines are a hugely problematic tool at the best of times, the worst of social discrimination when it comes to schooling, however in this instance they really take the biscuit. Adam and I have already made the decision that we will pull our children out of school if cases start to increase rapidly and we feel there is a higher risk to them or us or if their mental health is really struggling under the current restrictions and changes. We would happily pay the fine, but we’re incredibly lucky to be able to say that we will pay £60 per child per parent and not worry. It’s not something that every family can do.

With all the above it might sound like I’m dead against schools reopening, and that is actually not the case. I’m dead against forced return to school, where my options have become deregister completely or return with risk, but I appreciate that there are a lot of reasons that schools may need to “reopen” (they didn’t ever really close did they?) I had numerous social workers contact me to tell me that they are delighted schools are reopening as the risk to certain children has been astronomical and there is very little being reported on the way our children have been forgotten. One lady told me that Chris Witty made it obvious that the government had forgotten about the vulnerable children, or simply didn’t care, when he said in his recent statement that the risk to children was higher if they didn’t return to school than the risk of the virus itself (I’m paraphrasing). It’s incredibly easy for me to sit here with my privilege of a warm home, food in the fridge and no risk of abuse and tell you that schools shouldn’t reopen. It’s a complex issue that really depends on individual circumstance. My children have siblings, two parents who are lucky enough to work from home and whilst it wasn’t always fun or easy, our homeschooling experience was filled with more fun and learning than screaming and tears. Their mental health has not suffered in the way that mental health will have suffered for some (though I would really love to point out that new research showed that teenagers in particular were LESS anxious during lockdown, without the day to day pressures of school life such as “academic achievement and challenging peer relationships” so please be cautious when believing the mental health byline blindly).

Ultimately it’s a trying time for everyone – even those who are absolutely delighted with the return to school, those who can’t wait to get their kids through the school gate, who are now facing a renewed criticism and judgement from the parenting police. Whatever your thoughts are on the return to schools this September, we should all be free to send our kids back however we feel is right – without fines and certainly without judgement.

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