“I WORRY that I’m letting the kids down, that I’m not teaching them properly.” “Sometimes in order to get my work done I just have to leave the kids in front of the telly for four hours.” “What state is my mental health going to be in after three months of this?”
We are a month into the third term of the 2020/21 school year, and despite a fillip in the shape of last week’s announcement that some pupils could return to the classroom before February is out, many parents in the islands feel they and their children are bearing an unsustainably heavy load.
There is huge concern about the educational and psychological effects that missing out on weeks, perhaps months, of regular schooling will have on our children.
But the indefinite closure of schools, nurseries and playgroups to most children is also reaping consequences for working parents. In the past fortnight Shetland News has spoken to numerous mums and dads as they breathlessly try to juggle home schooling, childcare and work.
With Shetland remaining in level three – meaning a greater number of workplaces are permitted to open than is the case on the mainland, which is enduring a stricter lockdown – local education officials recognised a need for greater flexibility.
As a result, in the second half of January the average number of school pupils still attending has comfortably exceeded 500 – with a high of 594 on Wednesday 20 January – out of a total school roll of 3,826.
Children’s services director Helen Budge said the SIC was “trying to keep it as open as possible” while urging parents only to put their children to school – where they are supervised by classroom assistants but still taught remotely by teachers from home – if there was no alternative.
“There’s a big difference for us in that we’re in level three than if we were in level four or a lockdown, and that’s making a bit of a difference to our numbers but we understand that,” she said.
Parliamentarians and councillors in the islands welcomed first minister Nicola Sturgeon’s announcement last Monday that P1-P3 and early learning pupils could return from 22 February, along with a limited number of S4-S6 pupils. That is still subject to review and reliant upon the downward trajectory in Scotland’s Covid-19 infection levels continuing.
That could see almost 1,300 early learning and childcare pupils returning – roughly a third of Shetland’s total school roll. But it is unlikely that other primary and secondary pupils will return this side of the Easter holidays.
With schools regarded as a major contributor to the spread of infections, and with over 1,000 UK Covid-19 deaths a day so far in 2021, there is little argument about the public health basis for the extended closure.
But it has now been six weeks since schools closed for the Christmas break, and even after a steady decline in cases both locally and nationally it could conceivably be a further 8-10 weeks before most pupils return.
Most of the working parents Shetland News spoke to asked to be kept anonymous to avoid any issues with their employers.
One Lerwick-based mother said she frequently found herself breaking down in tears. She has two young primary school daughters and has been trying to home school them during school hours, then clocking in to do her office admin job from 5.30pm until 1.30am.
She is then up again at 6.30am with the kids. It has been “a real struggle” through January and she worries about the toll the sleeplessness and stress will take if the situation persists until April.
A single mum with an eight-year-old, meanwhile, said her current routine involves logging three hours from 6am, breaking to get her daughter started with her schoolwork, then return to work until lunchtime.
She then breaks for lunch and goes through her daughter’s work for the morning, before clocking in with work until 5pm.
“[My daughter] is very good at getting on with her work but I am interrupted quite a bit through my working day to help her with peerie bits and pieces. This can’t be helped; she is only eight and has a lot of school work to do each week,” the mum said.
“I have to say I do feel my work is suffering. I do not feel totally present with everything that is going on. I am trying to keep a positive attitude and hope this will only go on until the end of this month as quite honestly if it goes on until after the end of the Easter holidays I am unsure how my mental health will be.”
She worries about her children not being around their peers and fears: “I won’t have done a good enough job with teaching them and they will be behind when they get back to school. I am no teacher that is for sure! I have no idea how parents of [younger] children manage, I really don’t.”
On that point, Budge emphasised the schools service is “not expecting parents to be teachers” and urged anyone “struggling with the process of remote learning” to get in touch with Hayfield House for advice.
To further emphasise that advice, the SIC has just released a short video on YouTube which can be watched below.
Numerous parents reported feeling constantly exhausted, guilt at resorting to excessive screen time for their bairns and anxiety about the open-ended nature of the situation.
There were those enjoying a more positive experience, often those who are able to access childcare through grandparents and those with particularly understanding employers.
A TUC survey last month, however, found that more than 70 per cent of workers across the UK had furlough requests related to childcare turned down.
One mother who has continued working throughout the pandemic, sometimes at home and sometimes in her employer’s office, was particularly disappointed that her employer had rejected her request for part-time furlough.
She described trying to work full time and home school three children was “absolutely insane” and she was “really struggling”.
Her employer had told her in December that they would do whatever they could to help, but ultimately was told to “take holidays or unpaid leave” if she needed.
“There’s no way I can afford to go without pay, and if I take holidays now then what do I do at Easter, summer and October?” she asks.
One working mum was critical of the SIC for leaving her with the same dilemma and rejecting a request for emergency paid leave as it was “not an emergency”, meaning her partner had to take unpaid leave from his private sector occupation.
She said their only childcare options were family members well into their 70s who will not feel comfortable mixing until they have the full protection of a Covid-19 vaccine.
Citizens Advice Scotland’s local branch offers advice to employees. The organisation says that while everyone is entitled to ask to be furloughed, employers are not obliged to grant their request, but they must consider requests fairly and ensure they do not select some employees for furlough in an “unfair or discriminatory way”.
Anyone who was employed and paid before 30 October 2020 is eligible for furlough, under which the government pays 80 per cent of an employee’s normal wages, or a proportion if they are only furloughed part time.
“We would certainly encourage employers to consider the furlough scheme for eligible employees, but as we’ve discussed, the difficulty here is that there is no obligation on employers to grant requests,” a spokeswoman said.
She said CAB would encourage employers to offer maximum flexibility including home working, working on different tasks, reduced hours and allowing staff to work evenings and weekends to fit around the school day.
“We would be able to discuss these options with any employer who contacted us for advice,” the spokeswoman added.
If employees are unable to work or have their hours reduced CAB can offer a full welfare benefit check.
What is your experience of home schooling? If you would like to share with us, please get in touch via firstname.lastname@example.org
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