Many parents of a school age child in modern Britain will have the pleasure of being part of the class WhatsApp group. They are a mixed blessing that both keeps tardy parents with monosyllabic children informed of costume, kit, charity events and other such vital information for you to rush around at 8.45am in the morning to sort.
The downside is often the ability for those on the PTA to press gang you into staffing a stall at the Christmas Fair. I am in a variety of such groups and this week the tone has shifted from “gifts to buy the teacher” to a stream of information on kids who have been sent home from school in a number of Birmingham schools because of an incident of coronavirus.
Desperate parents have taken to the group to ask me where they can get a test because not only have their youngsters been told to isolate for 14 days, so have they.
I helpfully told the parents of Birmingham that I believe tests were available in Aberdeen. Which, being as Birmingham is on the precipice of a possible local lockdown, presents challenges beyond the hundreds of miles they might have to travel.
After my morning WhatsApp catchup and before I have even got out of bed (the benefit of living away from my children three days a week) I turn to my emails, and low and behold it too is full of frantic parents and childcare providers facing the exact same situation.
One nursery in my area tells me of how a member of staff has to isolate for 14 days because a child in their child’s class has tested positive. Another parent gets in touch exclaiming, “like many others today we can't get a coronavirus test for our daughter so we can't send her to nursery and we could end up isolating pointlessly for two weeks if we can't get a test within five days, we are already on day two!”.
One of my eldest son’s best friends in year 11, like the others in his year, has been sent home for 14 days. Having been back at school for only two days in six months, he must be feeling as if he is going to smash his GCSEs this year. My son also informs me when I pester him about his homework that teachers need to leave anything handed in untouched for three days before they can mark them and this will clog up the feedback system.
He seems to have very little homework, which obviously I wont worry too much about he is only in his GCSE year having missed months and months of tuition. I feel for him I really do, although I cannot help but laugh that he picked his GCSE options partially on the subjects that had the best trips. It seemed like a winning strategy in 2018, not so much now. Belgium will go delightfully unvisited by Brummie teenagers.
I understand how unprecedented this all is; I understand that this was going to be complex and there would be faults, but for the testing regime to essentially fall over at the exact moment the kids were going back to school stretches my sympathy to snapping point. I am terrified as a parent, and as the honorary parent of thousands of kids in Yardley.
My fear of the virus has been completely surpassed by my fear for the education of those I am responsible for. How was this stuff not planned for, tested, mapped out? Children have been off school for six months, there has been time. If someone had told me two years ago that my son’s advancement in his GCSEs would be in the hands of Gavin Williamson, I may have tried to move us permanently to Belgium.
Why on earth is there not been a better testing, tracing and isolating system put in place, to prevent thousands of children across the country heading home from school, forcing their parents out of work and the surrounding childcare systems to falter? What is being put in place for all the children in year 11 and year 13 this year who are staring down the barrel of on/off school, limited homework, digital exclusion, a deficit in tuition? I have seen nothing to date that has been offered to help them catch up.
These kids are just eight months away from their exams. I can no longer have reasonable expectations that there are many people planning and strategising a solution because week after week I awake to another story about how a government mess needs to be cleaned up, after the fact.
I never thought I would say this but I miss scrolling through WhatsApp and being press-ganged into helping out at the hook-a-duck stall – the desperation to raise funds for schools has turned into a desperation for kids to simply be in school. But don’t worry, Williamson is on the case.
Jess Phillips is the shadow minister for domestic violence and safeguarding and Labour MP for Birmingham Yardley
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