Maybe it’s time to prioritise the children, now?

In this essay, Annie Ridout discusses the impact the pandemic is having on children and wonders when the Government will start to prioritise children’s mental and physical needs over football matches…

We reach the school gates and I kiss my four-year-old son goodbye then watch him walk alone to his nursery classroom. I haven’t set foot in there since he started in September. Pre-pandemic, you’d walk in with your child each day, help them find their name badge and hang their coat on the peg. Now, you drop them at the main gate to navigate it all on their own. Yes, there are teachers – but I see two teachers and about 30 children.

In the first few weeks of term, my son thought he was shaking because he was cold. But we realised it was nerves. Starting preschool is a big transition and usually, there would be settling-in sessions and a gentler drop-off to ease them into the day. Now, it’s a brusque kiss at the gates before sending them off on their tod. In some ways, it might be good for their independence but I feel sad that this has happened because of the pandemic.

Thankfully, he settled quickly, made some friends and now walks in calmly and happily. Though I do feel disconnected from his nursery experience, and I find it hard to work out the dynamic. In normal times, you’d see who they’re playing with at the beginning and the end of the day but now, I have to rely on what he tells me. And any parent of a four-year-old will know reliability is not often their strong point.

As I watch him walk in, I remember that he left his water bottle there yesterday. I creep across the threshold into the school grounds to catch a teacher’s attention and let her know. He asked me to do this but I feel like I’m committing some kind of crime. Parents at the gates are watching me, wondering what it is I so urgently need to tell her. But I go ahead and pass on the message because if I don’t, he won’t bring it to their attention and will instead go without water all day.

I rush back out to find my daughter, and we wait 10 minutes until it’s time for her to go in. These Government-imposed Covid restrictions mean parents with more than one child are spending a lot of time hanging around the school gates. Even with masks and social distancing, I’m not sure this is particularly ‘Covid safe’. But the school is following Government guidelines, and so we are too. Much of what’s been made legal and illegal doesn’t make sense and doesn’t feel safe.

Someone on Instagram tallied the time they are now spending dropping and collecting their kids. I do the same: 20 minutes a day, five days a week equals one hour, 40 minutes a week. I spend that time loitering under the shade of a tree, to shelter from both sunshine and rain, making small talk with other parents and trying to keep my daughter happy (enough). I might otherwise be spending that time with a client or writing a book. But I can’t. So I wait.

Today, though, there’s an announcement: stop! Year 1 pupils from a particular class will not be going in today! There’s been a positive Covid test!

I thought we’d moved beyond school shutdowns. My daughter asks me what’s happening. I tell her everything’s fine and usher her in, before turning to my neighbour and seeing from her face that her son is in that class. They walk away from the school gates – the kid joyous; the mum laughing at the absurdity of having to yet again sideline her own career to care for her perfectly-well son. Just in case.

Meanwhile, we hear that 60,000 people will be allowed to attend Wembley for the final of Euro 2020. And that Uefa officials, politicians and sponsors are exempt from having to self-isolate for 10 days, when travelling in from ‘amber’ countries.

It becomes clear, yet again, that the mental and physical health of our children is being sidelined, while the whims of the men in charge are important enough to change laws. If Government officials like football, restrictions will be lifted. I wonder when a Government official will decide that children matter, and make changes to how we’re treating them during this pandemic?

So far, my children are allowed to stay in school. But I walk away imagining it’s only a matter of days or, at best, weeks until I get the school app pinging in my pocket to alert me that one or both children now have to self-isolate for 10 days, even if they are entirely well. This will mean I have to stop working. I can’t look after a two-year-old, four-year-old and seven-year-old, while coaching clients on the phone or writing. It means we can’t leave our house. But if one is still at school, we’ll all have to collect them, because there is now only one parent at home Monday-Friday. Will we be breaking the law?

I reflect on the parents who phoned the school when we were last forced to self-isolate, because they’d seen parents going for a walk with their kids. The informers. Curtain-twitching and causing paranoia. There are people who make you feel as if you owe them an explanation if you need to leave your house, even if you’re ‘allowed’. I feel myself lightly shaking with rage. I wonder if those people questioned why some families needed to do this, during an isolation period. Perhaps they have no outdoor space. Maybe they or their child are suffering with severe mental health challenges. Perhaps they have special needs, which make isolation unbearable.

People compare the pandemic to the war but there is a huge difference, which is that the wars brought communities together, while the pandemic pushes us apart. Physically, we must stay two metres apart. But we also see a range of responses to the rules. There are those who stick rigidly to them, those who bend them a little and those who completely disregard them. And we make judgments, depending on where we sit. Sometimes, people openly judge. I try not to, as I am not perfect and I believe people have reasons for their actions. I judge in private, sharing thoughts with my husband. It’s important to think beyond our own lives and to try to understand other people’s decisions.

But ultimately, it is for the Government to make a commitment to doing what is best for our children. We have prioritised the elderly and clinically vulnerable. And we are making good progress with vaccinating those who are willing to take part. Now, we need to look at our children and the hugely detrimental effect all this uncertainty is having on them. I know of children who were previously content but are now wetting the bed, having nightmares, crying on the way into school, tantrumming, anxious, depressed and suicidal. It’s time to prioritise the children.