If U.K. Schools Reopen, Will the Students Return?

LONDON — Every morning, about 30 minutes before her alarm is scheduled to go off, Ojala Agarwal is awakened by the sound of her 9-year-old son Aarav shouting at her from his bedroom next door: “Mommy, has the virus gone? Are we going to school today?”

So far, the answer has been, “No.” Even though the school has remained open for children like Aarav, who has special needs, and the children of essential workers, Ms. Agarwal is concerned that if Aarav goes to school, he will contract the coronavirus and bring it home with him.

She is by no means alone in her fears. A study carried out by the Department of Education in April found that around five percent of all children classified by the government as vulnerable, and around two percent of all children of essential workers, have attended schools in England since the lockdown.

Ms. Agarwal, 37, says she would like nothing more than for Aarav to go back to his teachers, friends and support network at his East London school. For years she has relied on them to help her manage his severe learning difficulties, which she said are linked to the abuse Aarav suffered from his alcoholic father during his infancy.

“I only know how to be a mother to my boy,” she said in a video call, speaking from her kitchen table as Aarav ran around her making loud whooshing noises. “I don’t have the skills to teach him at home. He has special needs and every day I feel like he is missing out and I’m letting him down. But then what if he goes, and becomes very ill?”

Even though schools in Britain were shut down to the vast majority of students in March as part of the effort to contain the spread of the coronavirus, classrooms have remained open for thousands of vulnerable students and the children of essential workers, who have been allocated emergency school slots by the government.

Under the government’s coronavirus guidance, vulnerable children include those who have a social worker, are in a protection plan, have an education, health and care plan or have been assessed as vulnerable by an education provider or local authority.

The low turnout at schools has raised concern among social workers and teaching staff, who have struggled to contact children they believe to be at risk. Anne Longfield, the Children’s Commissioner for England, estimates that around 2 million children in England are locked down in high risk home environments.

“While the government’s decision to keep schools open for the most vulnerable children is welcome, sadly most of them are just not showing up,” she said.

“They are most likely at home, often exposed to a cocktail of secondary risks — a lack of food in the house, sofa-surfing or cramped living conditions, neglect, or experiencing acute difficulties due to parental domestic violence, substance abuse and mental health problems. Many will be caring for parents or siblings themselves in these incredibly difficult circumstances.”

On a recent morning, Astrid Schon, the associate head teacher at the London East Alternative Provision School, waited all day for her students to show up. The school caters to vulnerable children who cannot attend mainstream schools, and Ms. Schon has been desperate for the children to return so she can offer them the stability and support that they require. That day, only one 14-year-old student came to school, and it was to use the gym and catch up with the staff.

“Many of our kids have lots and lots of issues. They are on child protection plans, child in need plans, neglect from home plans, living in conditions where they are exposed to domestic violence, parents who have drug addictions, who don’t cook for them or care for them,” Ms. Schon explained. “But a vast majority of them are teenagers who do not see themselves as vulnerable, so when they hear that all schools are closed and they don’t have to come in, they choose not to come in.”

Teachers and others at the school try to check in on the students each day by phone, but often struggle to pin them down. In recent weeks, they have targeted some of the most vulnerable students who they believe to be at risk at home, and have managed to get two to three of them to come in each day.

“It’s not the same when you’re working at home,” said Abul Mohammed Qadir, the 14-year-old student who came to use the gym. “We are just sitting there answering questions, with no explaining. It’s easy to get lost.”

Many students at the school also struggle to engage with their teachers and ask for help when they need it from home. “Most of them are staying up until three in the morning playing computer games, and then they wake up at noon,” said Ms. Schon.

Even children who have continued to attend school during the lockdown have struggled to stay focused and adapt to the new environment. Cressida Long, a 55-year-old London-based care worker and single parent, says she had no choice but to send her two teenage daughters to school while she made home visits for work.

“They are just sitting in a library with two or three other kids all day. It’s like being in detention. Most of the time they are just staring into space,” said Ms. Long. “They are jealous of their friends at home, who get to sit in their bedrooms and chat over video unsupervised.”

Social workers in particular are struggling to navigate their new working conditions, in which every child has a different arrangement and meetings take place online.

“There are lots of things you can’t gauge over video, like the smell of cannabis or the coercing of a situation off camera,” said Eve Joy Wilson, a London-based social worker. “It’s also hard to structure things when you are not in the room.”

When children attend school, social workers are drip fed information about their behavior from teachers and support staff. Referrals to children’s social care have fallen by as much as half since lockdown measures were put into place in March, according to the Association of the Directors of Children’s Services.

Last year, when Ms. Agarwal fell ill with a kidney infection and could not attend Aarav’s social-care sessions at his school, his social worker found that he was more engaged and open about the issues that troubled him.

“School is the only place Aarav feels completely safe and happy,” Ms. Agarwal said, adding that on some days he misses it so much that he wears his blue school polo shirt and cardigan around the house.

“He wants to be there all the time, but what can I do? If he became sick, if anything happened to him, I would just die.”

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