A timeline of misery: How children are paying the price for adults’ Covid dithering

When I was a boy, staring dreamily out of the classroom window, my teacher would summon me back to sums and spellings with the reprimand: "You’re in another world." For schoolchildren today, however, those words have taken on a grim, literal significance.

As the adult world vaccinates, or revels in double-jabbed status to scan holiday brochures and look forward to the scrapping of Covid restrictions on July 19, children – who remain overwhelmingly unaffected by the virus – find themselves locked into a nightmare of endless disruption and self-isolation, with untold effects not just on their futures but on their mental and physical health too.

We don’t, and probably won’t, vaccinate many of them. Yet we subject vast numbers of children to routine testing and, when a single positive result comes back (often from kits that America’s Food and Drug Administration considers so unreliable they should be destroyed and placed "in the trash"), entire classes are being sent home. Across the country, sports days are called off, year groups disbanded and education disrupted at the drop of a hat.

While Wembley gears up to receive 60,000 spectators, the school world, run by Gavin Williamson, is experiencing peak pandemonium. Covid-related pupil absence in state schools is currently at its highest rate since schools reopened in March.

At the last count, 246,000 children are missing school in England as a result of Covid – and of those, just 9,000 are confirmed cases. That is more than a quarter of a million students having their rhythms, routines and education smashed once again.

And yet as Prof Sir Andrew Pollard, the director of the Oxford Vaccine Group behind the AstraZeneca jab told me, "children aren’t very much affected [by Covid], so the testing obviously isn’t being done to protect them. So is the testing being done to protect other people?"

The answer is, of course, yes. Mass testing of children is being done to protect us, in the grown-up world, with our jabs and our Wembley games. The prospects and education of children are being sacrificed to benefit their elders, even though hospitalisation rates remain low and we still don’t even know what, if any, significant part children play in the transmission of the virus.

"It’s not like flu," Prof Pollard confirmed to me, "where children are absolutely key to the severity of the flu season." Not that we eject whole classes for a single case of flu – which kills more than 10,000 a year on average. At least not yet, anyway.

In the grown-up world, we have been playing with serious stakes: 128,000 people have died and the risk-benefit equation has been stark. Children, on the other hand, have for almost a year and a half had their existence stripped of its key benefits, even though they suffer what borders on no risk at all.

It is a timeline of woe whose consequences many will be suffering for years to come, if not for their whole lives. Last year, theme parks opened before schools and a summer of exam chaos ensued. A year on, despite millions having been vaccinated, the dial has hardly moved. 

Campaign for Children: Education: The days lost

Last week, Mr Williamson confirmed that even next year’s exam schedule will not be back to normal and may not even take place at all, in which case one year group will have missed both their GCSEs and A-Levels. It was an announcement that capped a chronology of cock-ups and reversals that has scarred millions.

The timeline of misery – lockdown 2020

The current state of affairs, in which the security of the adult world is built on chaos inflicted on the children’s world, began almost as soon as the seriousness of the coronavirus situation hit Downing Street.

On March 23 2020, schools were shut in the first national lockdown. At the time, much less was known about Covid – though not nothing.

Just four days earlier, a systematic review of medical literature was published and found that "children have so far accounted for one to five per cent of diagnosed Covid-19 cases. They often have milder disease than adults and deaths have been extremely rare".

By September, when children prepared to return for the new school year, not a single child without serious underlying health conditions would have died from Covid.

It wasn’t just schools that were closed last March. Playgrounds were chained up, swings looped over their crossbars and toddlers prevented from bobbing up and down on a see-saw, fuelling what the all-party parliamentary group on a Fit and Healthy Childhood would later call "a pandemic of mental health problems" among children. 

Campaign for Children: Rise in mental health referrals

The alchemy of face-to-face teaching was substituted for the dubious electronic benefit of remote learning. It didn’t take long for research to reveal what any parent knew to be true – computer classes widened the gap between the haves and the have nots.

Less than a month after lockdown, the Sutton Trust revealed that two-thirds of children had not taken part in online lessons, with pupils at private schools more than twice as likely to receive daily online tuition as their state-educated peers.

This month, Lee Elliot Major, professor of social mobility at Exeter University, estimated that about two million children did no learning at all during the first lockdown. Overall, he added, England had lost 110 of 190 classroom days to the pandemic.

The summer term return

If staying out of class was bad, children then had to endure the ignominy of harebrained Covid mitigation schemes for the summer term return – keeping within socially distanced hula-hoops, being allotted fixed times to go to the loo, wiping away their own blood, snot and tears after a tumble in the playground.

Reading books were sanitised after use, even as evidence emerged that surfaces played little to no part in the spread of infection. Desks for tiny tots were surrounded by yellow and black tape, like police "do not cross lines", and teachers wore personal protective equipment.

That was when they taught at all.

The June 1 return to primary school was defied by 50 councils, concerned for teacher safety. Unions, too, were wary. Indeed, the biggest teachers’ union, the NEU, was later accused of "hijacking the pandemic" by calling for shutdowns while demanding pay rises.

Tim Loughton, a former children’s minister, said individual teachers had "worked hard through the pandemic to carry on providing schooling to their pupils… yet it has usually been in spite of the NEU, which has consistently put obstacles in the way of keeping schools open".

In secondary schools, the instructions were to keep face-to-face teaching to a minimum. Nor did councils roll out the white paint for sports day running tracks, cancelled even as new case rates across the country reached an all-time low. By now, the proportion of children running about for an hour a day had fallen to 19 per cent from 47 per cent before the pandemic. 

Campaign for Children: Obesity

Later in the year, Amanda Spielman, Ofsted’s chief inspector, said children had lost not just physical fitness but reading and writing skills too. Those of reception age who had been potty-trained pre-lockdown were reverting to nappies and dummies; others had forgotten how to count or use a knife and fork.

This week, it emerged that the number of children and teens referred to clinical treatment for screen-driven gaming addiction had tripled in a year.

Exams fiasco

For a moment in the summer holidays, children were given a few weeks away from the pandemic madness – but it didn’t last long. The great grade fiasco came in August, when teachers’ assessments were widely marked down, only to be marked back up again after righteous fury across the board.  

Students who otherwise had behaved with extraordinary generosity – complying with edicts which shut down their classrooms, shrivelled their friendships, ripped up their plans for trips, gap years, universities and first jobs and marked their qualifications forever with an asterisk – howled with anger and despair.

Back to school – and back out again

Figures showed that over 20,000 children had fallen off the school register by the time schools reopened in the autumn – this week, that figure jumped considerably. Analysis of official figures from the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) identified 93,514 pupils who were mostly absent between September and December.

The Kent Covid variant gripped the country and, despite warnings that vulnerable children may be "falling through the gaps", chaos returned when schools closed again for the third lockdown after the Christmas holidays. No matter that, as Prof Russell Viner, president of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, told MPs on the education select committee: "When we close schools, we close their lives."

Campaign for Children: Calls to childline

Outdoor sports were banned again. A survey from Sport England found that almost a third of children (2.3 million) were now "inactive" as a result of lockdown restrictions.

As parents and children juggled work with a second prolonged bout of homeschooling, tensions caused what the president of the British Paediatric Neurology Association described as an "explosion" of children with disabling tics and Tourette’s syndrome.

Face masks and testing furore

When schools did go back, on March 8 this year, they went back to the great face mask debate. Some parents formed a campaign group against the stricture, which stayed in place for secondaries until May 17, complaining that masks caused "fatigue, breathing difficulties and facial rashes".

A mass testing campaign began. As with testing, the question posed by Prof Pollard was true of masks too. "Who were they protecting?"

Obviously not the children themselves. Evidence showed they were unlikely to pass Covid to their teachers. Even today, at the height of the test and isolate chaos in schools, the Department for Education notes that just 1.7 per cent of teachers are absent for Covid reasons – less than half the 4.4 per cent absent for "other" reasons.

The difference, of course, is that where substitute teachers can be brought in for routine sickness, Covid absences – of teacher or pupil – detonate through a class or year group, sending many or all home.

Campaign for Children: Falling behind

In a way, such sacrifices might make sense if, like adults, children were involved in a clear programme to propel them towards the liberties they used to enjoy.

But they are not, and the decision on whether to vaccinate them is unlikely to come for several weeks. The current state of affairs suggests mass testing and the ensuing disruption is critically interfering with education in this country. It could be resolved by rolling out vaccinations, if they are deemed safe, or shelving tests. One or the other.

If the victims of such contradictions could vote, more might be done to end them. But instead, as they have done for more than a year – with school closures, bubbles, facemasks, remote learning and exams – children are paying the price for the dithering of adults more interested in protecting themselves than the good of the young.

  • Additional reporting by Alice Hall

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