Relax virus rules so pupils can stay in lessons – Jayne Dowle

MY daughter is one of the 375,000.

School lessons continue to be disrupted by Covid, but what can be done to tackle this?

She didn’t even make it to school on Monday morning and now, like one in 10 pupils in England she’s sitting out coronavirus self-isolation at home, even though she is perfectly well.

To mix a football metaphor, just when we thought it might be beginning to be all over, here we go again.

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At 8am Lizzie came downstairs. Her grab-and-go breakfast was on the table, her bag ready. “Hang on a minute mum,” she said. “I don’t think I’m going to school today.”

Gavin Williamson is the Education Secretary.

Her phone was pinging with indignation as classmates sent messages to say they had received notification that a pupil in Year 10 had tested positive for coronavirus, confirmed by a PCR test.

As she listed the girls – and it was only girls – instructed to stay at home and isolate for the next 10 days, Lizzie was puzzled. It was no-one in her ‘bubble’, clearly.

Who could it be? I suggested she put her GCSE maths into practice by composing a Venn diagram of girls in her registration form, girls who did French, girls who did double science and so on, to try and isolate the individual. I was only half-joking.

No message was forthcoming, so at 8.20am we rang the school. The secretary, who surely deserves special mention in any pandemic honours list for her enduring patience since March last year, answered. She couldn’t tell us immediately if Lizzie was “on the list”. There followed an anxious hour.

School lessons continue to be disrupted by Covid, but what can be done to tackle this?

Then she rang back and confirmed that Lizzie must indeed self-isolate and do daily lateral flow tests. Poor Lizzie. Her face fell and tears came to her eyes. Her aunty – my sister – and 17-year-old cousin were on their way that morning from Kent to stay with my parents for a week. It’s almost two years since they were able to do this and Lizzie was so looking forward to seeing them.

Her carefully-laid plans for the foreseeable future fell to pieces in seconds. That evening we were planning to go out for tea to celebrate a family birthday. What about Tuesday night, when she was off to a friend’s house to watch the England-Germany game, her first proper ‘football party’? No dance class either. Or that trip to Meadowhall to update her summer wardrobe. No weekend walks or cinema. And of course, no school.

Only last week she was buzzing, having done well in the latest round of mock GCSEs. She was looking forward to the last month of term with the pressure of exams off and feeling confident and excited for the challenges of Year 11.

And now, as I write, she’s in her bedroom with the dog, attempting to follow online lessons until 2.40pm, when her plans for the rest of the day stretch as far as baking a cake.

School lessons continue to be disrupted by Covid, but what can be done to tackle this?

Is this what the Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, wants for a whole generation of children and young people?

To be fair, Lizzie is, in fact, one of the fortunate ones. She has a safe home, decent wi-fi and supportive adults around. What of the thousands of children and teenagers not in this position?

If he really is committed to his job, Mr Williamson must get a grip on the situation, and fast.

We parents are not daft. We know his announcement of a ban on mobile phones in the classroom was a distraction tactic. Most schools ban them already. What’s the point of a ban if there is no-one in school?

He says he’s working with the new Health Secretary, Sajid Javid, scientists and public health experts to relax Covid measures in schools. What he isn’t doing, clearly, is getting clear and pragmatic instructions across to school leaders or displaying any understanding of how ‘Covid measures’ actually translate on the ground.

All those weeks of ‘lost learning’ and the derisory catch-up funding being put up by the Treasury undermine not just stability for children and young people, but attempts at levelling up escalating social disparities.

Parents are angry, and rightly so. In another local school, the whole of Year 10 has been sent home because of one confirmed coronavirus case.

At the time of writing, most of the girls in Lizzie’s year group are confined. It looks like the positive case came into contact with others in the PE/dance changing rooms, where ‘bubbles’ evaporate. Two weeks ago, the school forbade students from coming directly to school in their kit because of concerns about uniform standards.

Does Mr Williamson even know that decisions like this are being taken every day, by school leaders who are then obliged to follow the government guidance when a coronavirus case breaks out? There is far too much room for interpretation and far too little sound and logical government guidance. The buck stops with him, and meanwhile our children stop at home. There has to be a better way.

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