When Britain’s first lockdown was announced last March, many parents viewed it as a novel inconvenience. Yes, there was a degree of fear about this unknown virus sweeping the globe, but most of us kept calm and carried on.
We stocked up on hand sanitiser and watched our kids celebrate this unexpected break from school. We posted pictures of banana bread on social media, joked with friends about our failed attempts at teaching trigonometry and rewarded our efforts with a 3pm glass of rosé. We shrugged off the effects of our kids missing a few weeks of school.
That upbeat acceptance of the pandemic seems a world away from where we are now. Behind millions of closed doors, parents are depressed and exhausted. The endless food preparation, housework, laundry and refereeing of sibling fights is almost unbearable.
Even those with moderate financial security are simply not coping. Bosses may say that they understand the pressures of working from home, but unless they too have a child sticking a knife in the toaster to retrieve another burnt bagel, while the guinea pig gets lost behind the sofa and the accountant demands tax information just as an important client pops up on Zoom, they do not know what it is like. We are trying to be all things to all men, and it is not sustainable.
Lockdown struggle: Beverley Turner pictured with her children, from left, Kiki, 11, Trixie, nine, and Croyde, 17
And I am well aware that I am one of the lucky ones. When my ex-husband, James Cracknell, was injured in a road accident 11 years ago, we received a settlement that was invested for school fees. There is no way I could afford to send our three to private school otherwise.
Consequently, my children – 17, 11 and nine – all attend the same well-run independent school in West London and I was able to buy them basic new laptops at Christmas to cope with online learning.
They each have a bedroom. Their home-schooling provision has been nothing short of remarkable. They have a full timetable of lessons from 8.30am to 3.30pm, including live lessons from all their individual subject teachers, including music and exercise. My kids will (academically at least) be fine.
I know that many families with children in state schools have not been so fortunate. When I spoke on television last month about the gap between home-schooling provision of private versus state schools and urged the Government to prioritise the vaccination of teachers, it drew gasps of shock.
But the response on social media was fascinating: hundreds of people messaging me publicly because someone was finally saying what they were too afraid to express.
I also spoke to the headmaster of a successful private school who confirmed my suspicion about the gap widening. ‘Fee-paying school children already had an advantage – now they could be a full year ahead of those in the state system,’ he said. ‘It’s relatively easy for us – all our children and teachers have the tech they need; they have access to enough data and a quiet space to work.
There are millions of families who don’t.’ Boris Johnson has suggested schools could start reopening from March 8 – but parents and head teachers have precious little information.
Will that be all schools? All year groups? If it were up to me, I’d send back primary school children and those with exams ahead (Years 11 and 13) after half-term, followed by the rest as soon as possible.
A teacher explains social distancing measures to a group of year seven students in a classroom at City of London Academy Highgate Hill in September last year
For many parents it still feels there is no end in sight.
During last year’s lockdown we grumbled about the sacrifices we were making in our careers or social lives. Now we are just worried about our kids. There is the saying that ‘a mum is only ever as happy as her most unhappy child’. And every family has at least one of those. The ‘Quaranteens’ are the ones I worry about the most: the 16 to 17-year-olds who didn’t sit their GCSEs. The hard workers never got their moment of glory; the duckers and divers didn’t learn the valuable lesson that hard work equals results.
This age group should be out engaging in a whole manner of ‘firsts’ – jobs, driving lessons, romantic relationships. Instead they are developmentally atrophying at home in front of Snapchat, Netflix and TikTok.
Even the strictest tech-policing parent has had to become more blasé about increased screen time during these miserable winter months. Nottingham Trent University found that 82 per cent of parents felt their children’s screen time increased during last year’s lockdown – I’m amazed it wasn’t higher. And that was in the summer, when parks and gardens offered appealing respite from the house.
I have had conversations with mothers saddened at the sight of their children’s changing bodies: ten-year-olds who swam five times a week developing pot-bellies; 12-year-old gymnasts with once iron spines from daily workouts but whose shoulders are starting to hunch from sitting at a screen all day.
Yes, we parents have a responsibility to keep our own kids fit, and although a daily stroll to the park – if you’re lucky enough to live near one – is good for adults, it is insufficiently taxing for kids.
We should be furious that Government decisions are harming our children’s bodies in the short, and possibly, the long term.
If it were up to me, I’d send back primary school children and those with exams ahead (Years 11 and 13) after half-term, writes Beverley Turner (file photo)
And as the facts about Covid risk become clearer, it is evident that younger people have acceded to the biggest act of altruism the world has seen. The average age of death from this virus is 83 and the majority who die have pre-existing medical conditions. Our youngsters have made huge sacrifices to keep older generations safe.
Vaccinating the elderly first was a judgment based on protecting those most at risk of dying of Covid-19. Some may argue that it was a decision made by a Government embarrassed to see itself near the top of global death-toll tables. Surely now is the time to take a more sophisticated approach and to vaccinate our teachers as soon as possible, starting with those most at risk from the virus. After all, by February 15 the top four priority groups, accounting for 88 per cent of those who die of Covid-19, should have been inoculated.
As my own mother said: ‘Why not give my vaccine to a teacher? I’m 76 – I’m quite happy staying at home until a vaccine can be secured later. We should not be the priority.’ Wise woman, my mother.
And it is gladdening that, as The Mail on Sunday reports today, it appears some education staff are already getting inoculated – even if it is by mistake.
As the excellent vaccination programme continues to roll out, we must work as hard as possible to give our kids a return to normality. My 17-year-old son was returning from dropping off a prescription at my mother’s door earlier this month when he was stopped by the police. He was worried about being fined as he didn’t have enough money on him to pay. I tried to reassure him, but privately I despaired.
After 12 months of unrelenting turmoil, he was having to grapple with yet another frightening and baffling experience. Our young people have been through far too much this year – the sooner they go back to the classroom, the better.