I am the mother of two children, aged 9 and 13. The eldest is autistic and suffers from drug-resistant epilepsy – he had multiple hospitalisations in 2019 in the run up to the pandemic (although thankfully not since the start of it). My youngest takes a long time to recover from any virus, even mild, due to hypermobility and other muscular imbalances. When the pandemic arrived we were immediately suspicious of any suggestions we should just let people catch it (whether adults or children).
My son spotted news from China in February while watching TV in hospital, and asked me whether Coronavirus was going to come to the UK. I responded it would not…. (he still brings it up – at least I cannot be accused of being the cause of my child’s anxiety over Covid).
The first lockdown, by the time it came, was welcome, and in fact I had already kept my kids home 2 weeks before it was announced, because I was following the news from other countries and assessed that the government was being slow to act; I also knew many local families had been skiing in the Alps at half term and were returning to school normally, despite ski resorts being already identified as a source of growing international outbreaks. Surely enough, many children were soon off sick in my daughters’ school and within a couple of weeks we kept hearing about parents in our neighbourhood who were extremely ill (we did not know if it was Covid19 as no testing was available then unless you needed hospitalisation).
The first lockdown was extremely hard for my children. My daughter became unwilling to go out at all, to the point that I asked for a place at school for my daughter on mental health grounds, and she went in, around early June with other key workers’ children (incidentally, given concerns about mental health impacts of schools closures for some, why can’t children who suffer out of school more than others simply get considered for a place with key workers, while others who are fine at home stay there for as long as needed to suppress the virus – rather than mental health concerns being used as a reason to rush to send all children back? Currently it seems that having an EHCP (special needs) means a child is classed “vulnerable”, and I hear parents are often put under pressure to send them into school; but having an EHCP does not mean being “vulnerable” necessarily, while displaying MH symptoms might mean that).
However, this decision for me was based on the fact infections at that point were very low, and that the school was then operating with very small groups of children on rotas. My eldest attends a small medical Pupil Referral Unit where a large number of children have anxiety developed BECAUSE of the school system, so they can’t attend mainstream secondaries – take note people who generalise that being in school is always best for children’s mental health: there are thousands of children who develop forms of school-related anxiety. He was invited to go back for a few days in July and after a discussion with his paediatrician we agreed that it would be good, on balance, to let him attend for a few days.
When September came, my youngest went back in happily. She did however ask me why, after all those months of being careful, staying distanced from others and using masks on public transport and elsewhere, there was none of that in school. I tried to explain that was due to the “priority” schooling had been given and the fact “children don’t get Covid badly and don’t transmit it”. I was however getting increasingly concerned about the veracity of this statement coming from government, and the fact that the system that had been in place over the summer, of rotas and small groups, had been abolished in favour of a full opening with huge “bubbles”. I wrote to the headteacher expressing my concerns and was told this was government guidance. I called a number of friends and family around the world and was told that in those countries children were going to school in completely different conditions. Mostly with face masks, in many places from age 6, and in all countries they were in smaller groups than in normal times. In some countries, like Germany, schools were investing in new ventilation systems. People abroad were deeply shocked and worried about my account of the situation in UK schools, and suggested I should not send my children in.
On top of my worry, things became difficult in a very practical way. My youngest was constantly only going to school for a few days, before immediately catching respiratory viruses – she caught every single one that circulated, we think. Every time she had to stay home (she was often very unwell, and so were we, who caught everything from her), and we had to figure out if it could be Covid19, whether symptoms in children were correctly listed in the guidance, decide whether to get tested, how to get to a testing centre without owning a car, etc. We self isolated multiple times and took tests more than once over the autumn, all negative – but the stress, physical unwellness and general disruption for us all was huge. This then led me to wonder whether it might be better for her to learn at home from January for a period (this was when it was not clear at all that the government would listen to scientists about the need to reduce numbers in schools), to get more stability, as well as to avoid catching the virus and bring it to her brother who might be at higher risk.
Then I heard that – thanks to a legal case being brought against the government guidance by Parents United – it had become clear it was legal to keep children home if they lived with clinically vulnerable family members. So the decision became easy to make, despite my concerns over whether she would again suffer as in the first lockdown. I am happy to report that she is coping much better this time, most likely because it was planned rather than sudden (because WE planned it, discussed it, mitigated against the problems we knew we might face, which is the opposite of what we feel the government has done – creating huge, constant uncertainty for all children and families).
My eldest was meanwhile not attending school regularly much due to his anxiety. He said that the fear of catching and passing Covid19, and generally the fact the pandemic is out of control, was definitely a major factor in his anxiety (he has coined the expression “New Zealand and Australia envy”). I tried to reassure him as best as I could with the government statements about schools being safe (I tried to persuade myself, too, despite having growing doubts, and fearing the unknown consequences of him catching Covid19). So I tried to persuade the school to encourage, if not mandate, the use of face masks in class – to reduce his risk but also his anxiety.
The response was that they “are strong believers in the importance of the smile”. I suggested adopting transparent masks and offered to research the options and then fundraise to buy them. I got no response, and gave up because as much as I appreciate this school’s lovely staff and the complexity of the issues they deal with, it was hard not to feel resentful that my child’s serious health issues were considered less important than the hypothetical harm to a child from not seeing a teacher’s mouth all the time. But I don’t blame the school at all. They are hard working, amazing professionals. It’s government guidance causing this confusing situation. Also, I am a strong believer in teaching children and teenagers to care for each other and be a full part of society; sometimes that involves making a small sacrifice to protect other people. Perhaps I am old fashioned.