Reflections on another difficult school year

Published on 27 July 2021 in , ,

A school group in Beaufort. From the State Archives of North Carolina

On returning home after a recent school run, I started wondering. Which school year had been worst? 2019/2020? Or 2020/2021?

2019/2020 started off quite nicely until a pandemic arrived. In the end my two children spent only half the academic year was spent in their school (son) and nursery (daughter). The rest was spent at home.

It was stressful at first, as Catherine and myself tried to juggle our respective jobs with looking after two children, although it calmed down once Catherine was furloughed. The weather was good, the amount of school work to do was limited. One lesson a day that my son rattled through usually in about an hour. The children spent a lot of time doing wholesome outdoor activities like walks round the local area; all helped by pretty good weather. You can easily imagine the children looking back on it in the future as some sort of idyllic time.

2020/2021 offered different challenges. My daughter settled into her reception class with relative ease, oblivious to the fact that school life was very different to normal because it was all she had known. Her elder brother seemed mostly unfazed by it all, and we got through the autumn term relatively unscathed. The second lockdown in the autumn was fine thanks to the schools remaining open.

And then January arrived. A third national lockdown. Schools closed again. My daughter had only spent three months in school and suddenly she’d been abruptly ejected from it.

This was perhaps the worst moment. And that was despite having an incredibly supportive employer.

The initial stages of the first lockdown had taught me an incredibly important lesson. It’s horrendous trying to juggle work and homeschooling. It’s not sustainable. Thankfully I had access to a generous paid Exceptional Leave policy introduced due to Covid-19. There were no debates, no disagreements, no awkwardness. I simply told work I needed to go down to three days a week, and they went “Okay, go for it.”

Catherine and myself each took two days of homeschooling. The introduction of Childcare Bubbles meant my parents could do the fifth, as well as having the children on a Saturday so we could have a break.

But that is not to say it was easy. Home schooling expectations had increased enormously. Both children now had pretty much full days of work to do. And trying to juggle the different educational needs of a four year old and an eight year old was horrendous. You’re in the mindset of trying to teach phonics to a four year old, then have to immediately switch to trying to help an eight year old with their science.

The three days a week I spent doing my job was just as difficult. I quite often had no idea what was going on and I felt like I was spending most of my time catching up on stuff, and never quite managing it. Everyone was very understanding and no one had unrealistic expectations, but it drained me. Between the homeschooling and work I had next to no mental capacity. It was exhausting, not helped by the fact I’d changed teams back in September, was still finding my feet in that, and was working on a large, complex project that I never got my head round.

When I heard people say that they didn’t know how people coped with working full time and doing homeschooling, I had one simple answer. They weren’t. Let’s be blunt. I wasn’t coping and I was only working three days a week, normal hours. How can anyone cope with working five days a week and trying to homeschool children? Sorry, it’s not possible. Like most parents – I am sure – I breathed a huge sigh of relief when the children returned to school before Easter.

Added to that, the whole of the academic year has been a constant worry about Bubble Closures, and the potential for the children being sent home to isolate.

Our children’s school has been incredibly fortunate here. We have been incredibly fortunate too. Despite the fact that Greater Manchester has had four waves of Covid (every time anyone says anything about the current third wave, I just laugh and reply, “no…”), and despite being one of the largest primary schools in the borough, they’ve only had three bubble closures during the whole academic year, affecting three of the eighteen classes. They have the good fortune to have a modern building with good ventilation, and an ability to keep the different classes quite separate. But even so, it’s amazed me. The other day I read an article by a parent whose child (at primary school) had been sent home to isolate seven times this academic year. After the sixth one she was back in school for a whole two days before being sent home again.

Thankfully the worst we have had was an abrupt bout of homeschooling back in September. The children both developed a cough that I was convinced was the classic “back to school cough”. But at this stage schools were being paranoid having had little useful information or guidance from government. Because they coughed three times they were sent home to get tested. At a point when the testing system was in meltdown due to, err, lots of children getting back to school coughs… Yeah. I was right. The tests came back negative. But not before we’d had two days of homeschooling.

Even so, it’s been a constant worry throughout the year. The feeling that it’s not a matter of if, but when. Especially now, as term ends, and Greater Manchester has its highest Covid-19 rates than at any stage of the pandemic.

So which was worse? The year where half of it was spent with the children at home? Or the one with less time at home, but more homeschooling, and constant worry?

I think I’ll go with the latter. But one thing is for certain. I never want to go through another school year like either of them again. Although it remains to be seen how much better 2021/2022 will be.