Four primary schools operate under the trust, two of which – All Saints CE in Wigston and Hope Hamilton CE in the northeast of the city – have been affected by the local lockdown. Since 1 June, 40 per cent of children had returned across all four schools, Knox says, though that figure will have plummeted following the government’s announcement on Monday.
After weeks of progress, in which some semblance of normality had begun to return, schools in Leicester now find themselves back to square one.
Classrooms that were slowly filling up are once again empty. Children have been sent back home. And questions linger over what remains in store for the education sector.
While the children of key workers are still allowed to attend class, the widespread closure of schools across the East Midlands city has been met with disappointment, anger and frustration among parents and pupils.
“Obviously it’s disappointing,” Jan Knox, the executive head of the Vines Academy Trust in Leicester, tells The Independent. “Some of the children were really settling into school and doing well. It was clearly really joyful for them to be back at school.”
Even before the lockdown was confirmed by health secretary Matt Hancock, parents had begun taking their children out of some schools as awareness spread that Leicester was experiencing a spike in cases, Knox adds. And fears will have no doubt been heightened among some families following the revelation there has been “an unusually high incidence” of Covid-19 among the city’s children since increased testing increased 10 days ago.
“There clearly has been some anxiety in the areas where the lockdown is,” Knox says. “We had already experience some parents pulling their children out of school as a result of the fact they were aware there was a problem in that area.”
Mark McDermott, whose young daughter Hope attends Ullesthorpe Primary School in south Leicestershire, described the situation as “frustrating”. A Year 6 pupil, Hope had been back in school for the past month and was gearing up for the final, “important” weeks of term.
“I feel a bit miffed about that, that she’s not going to get to do her end-of-year production properly in front of parents, or have an end-of-year assembly,” McDermott tells The Independent. “Those final weeks are important. It’s part of a rite of passage I suppose. It’s about moving on for her.”
He says that his older daughter Molly, a Year 10 pupil at Lutterworth College, has struggled to adapt throughout the lockdown. “She’s at home and her mental health is deteriorating through the pressure being put on from schools. They’re just piling work on through the online systems they’re using. That’s not helping at all. She’s missing her friends, the socialisation bit of it has completely gone out the window.”
Tracey Barker, a single mum based in Wigston, said was concerned how the lockdown was affecting the development of her three sons. “I’m worried. School isn’t just about what you learn academically, it’s all the other things you learn: social rules, the stimulation of different environments every day,” she tells The Independent. “Cabin fever isn’t good for anybody.
“Life was getting back to some level of normality for us and I’m really angry [at the local lockdown] because there are people out there who haven’t been following the rules and have spread it. If we all had followed the rules, we wouldn’t be back in lockdown.”
While her sons aged 14 and 11, both whom have autism, have been back in school on a permanent or part-time basis since 1 June, her 8-year-old hasn’t been in class since 16 March. “I feel like he’s been forgotten in the system at the moment,” Barker says. “It’s not easy for an 8-year-old to understand. I never told him that schools were going to go back on 4 July, I just said we’ll have to wait and see – and that’s not helped. I don’t want to give him [false] hope.”
Over in Braunstone, to the south of the city centre, Michelle Brown said her daughter Poppy, a 7-year-old at Ravenhurst Primary School, was never due to return to school before the end of term next Friday. She’s one of thousands of children across the country who have been forced to stay at home, while those in reception and Years 1, 6, 10 and 12 have been allowed back to class.
“I am worried of the impact this will all have on them socially. I don’t want her to lose her confidence,” Brown tells The Independent. “I don’t want her to feel fear. We protect children in their innocence. I don’t want her to be afraid of getting dirty. That is the part of the fun with kids; they play in the mud and that’s part of learning physical and sensory mental play. But now we’re telling them wash their hands, don’t touch or hug other people…”
She said the family was “gutted” by the decision to head back into lockdown. “In terms of homeschooling, I’ve done my best and the teachers have been brilliant, but it’s the social side that Poppy misses. She’s a social child, she misses all her friends.”
After the government published its plan for all schools in England to open full time in September, with secondary pupils expected to be kept in “Covid-secure” groups to limit the transmission of coronavirus, authorities are now turning their focus to preparing for next term. For those in Leicester, with the summer holidays set to start next Friday, time is of the essence.
“We’ve got quite a short time to speak to our parents about what next term might look like,” says Knox, adding that staff have begun processing the announcement. As a whole, she says, “information from the government has been slow to come to us sometimes. I understand that is very difficult for them to make decisions on, but sometimes it’s been quite late to arrive.”
Despite the difficulties that schools across Leicester and the country have faced over the past four months, Knox said she was optimistic that education could recover from the pandemic.
“Our experience of the children who have returned since 1 June is that they’ve bounced back into school. They’ve been really happy to be back, we’ve had very few children who are nervous about being back in school. They see it as a safe place. They’re actually thriving in the small teaching groups. I’m confident they’ll bounce back – with some hard work from staff too.”