Few pupils have escaped having to isolate from school this last year and some have been hit more than others.
In fact absence rates due to Covid are now higher than they’ve been since schools reopened in March, with children in Greater Manchester impacted more than most.
It’s not only having an impact on children’s education and well-being, but on their parents’ ability to work.
Mum Fiona Armstrong, an NHS consultant and a chair of governors at Hawthorns School, in Audenshaw, Tameside, is among those frustrated with the current school isolation rules, which have seen thousands of children sent home to learn remotely.
With both children now isolating once again, the 37-year-old is campaigning to raise awareness of the many issues school isolation brings and the urgent need for a sustainable plan.
Here Fiona, who lives with her children and husband Liam in Mossley, shares her open letter
“Last Monday my six-year-old daughter Niamh was sent home to self isolate after a class member tested positive from symptoms that developed over the weekend. As far as I know not one of her class has subsequently developed any symptoms.
This is the second time she had to isolate (the first time was for Christmas) and she was devastated at missing everything she has waited so long to enjoy – both at school pride week, her hobbies and her first birthday party in 16 months. She cried all afternoon when I had to pick her up.
To compound this, on Wednesday, my severely autistic eight-year-old son Max, who also has ADHD, was sent home due to a contact. This was not from his class but someone that he is in the hall with transiently for sensory time first thing in the morning. This is also the second time this has happened to him for the same reason again. There have again been no onward cases noted to my knowledge.
He is completely struggling. He has a sensory need for exercise and routine and he is completely confused. He doesn’t have the verbal ability to understand why he is at home so not being able to get out and burn off energy is causing meltdowns.
I had to leave my theatre list on Wednesday to help manage the situation – at great cost for a replacement consultant. I also had to conduct my clinic from home today on the phone – not an ideal way to have important discussions but I did not want patients waiting any longer than they already have done.
He is distressed and having to balance his needs with my daughter’s schooling and my job are pushing me to my limits at a time when the NHS is already under pressure and can’t afford to lose more doctors. Despite this I consider myself a lucky one who is still paid and thus can afford to self isolate my children. Many cannot.
I am terrified of them both, but particularly my son, having to come home again before the end of term. In my chair of governors role I am very worried about all the children at his school, 70% are currently off isolating and most have significant needs that make home learning and change in routine incredibly difficult.
We need data on onward spread within classrooms to justify the level of impact this is having on mental health, education, the economy and workforce planning. We need to consider that we may be sending too many home for minimal contact.
If most adults are vaccinated and the risks are considered low enough to have 40,000 fans at Wembley and open up everything in a few weeks then why are our children being locked away and suffering?
Watching crowds at Wimbledon today while my son was screaming in distress was insulting. It is either still dangerous and we should re-restrict events and socialisation and/or consider vaccinating children, or it isn’t, and we then have to accept circulation amongst children and let them get on with their lives. The current situation is unsustainable and cannot continue into the new school term.
Parents are exhausted and enough is enough. We need to be highlighting this as the main current issue. Again the North West is worst affected and the gaps will continue to widen with the South in terms of opportunity and education. I have begun a campaign to this effect and I have contacted Andy Burnham and my local MP Johnny Reynolds. This is where focus should be. I have asked Sajid Javid to make it one of his first priorities and I have contacted Public Health England to come up with a better sustainable plan.
We need to look at other options including testing children to allow them to continue school. The level of uncertainty and disruption is detrimental to all concerned and as a parent and a doctor I cannot justify seeing our children’s health and well-being suffer in this way. Specific attention needs to be paid to children with special needs and minimising disruption to this vulnerable group.