Sheffield parents slam Government plan to lift school isolation rules for 'using kids as guinea pigs'

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Parents in Sheffield have heavily criticised the Government’s proposals to replace school isolation rules this autumn.

This week the Government announced that isolation measures in schools are likely to be replaced with testing when the new school year begins in Autumn.

This would bring an end to the ten-day periods of distance-learning for those who come into contact with people carrying Covid. Instead, only those who test positive would be asked to isolate.

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However, the news has drawn a mixed reception. While some see it as a necessary step to ensure children minimise the number of hours of education they continue to lose out on by distance learning from home, others see it as a dangerous gamble which could lead to the virus spiking again.

Year eight pupils wear face masks as a precaution against the transmission of the novel coronavirus  (Photo by OLI SCARFF / AFP) (Photo by OLI SCARFF/AFP via Getty Images)Year eight pupils wear face masks as a precaution against the transmission of the novel coronavirus  (Photo by OLI SCARFF / AFP) (Photo by OLI SCARFF/AFP via Getty Images)
Year eight pupils wear face masks as a precaution against the transmission of the novel coronavirus (Photo by OLI SCARFF / AFP) (Photo by OLI SCARFF/AFP via Getty Images)

And in recent weeks, a number of Sheffield schools have been sending more groups of children home as they come into contact with the virus, sparking concern that lifting lockdown measures is being suggested while the virus spread is spiking.

Some parents have slammed the Government’s proposal, and highlighted how it overlooks the needs of the most vulnerable simply in an attempt to bring things back to perceived ‘normality’ at their expense.

Jennifer Jones is a Sheffield parent with a son with special educational needs and a Disabled People Against Cuts representative.

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She is against the Government’s suggestions, saying they are ‘unsafe’ and the start of a ‘slippery slope’ in terms of neglecting the needs of people with disabilities.

Jennifer Jones, a founding member of Sheffield’s Disabled People Against Cuts.Jennifer Jones, a founding member of Sheffield’s Disabled People Against Cuts.
Jennifer Jones, a founding member of Sheffield’s Disabled People Against Cuts.

She said: "The problem with these plans for reopening is that alongside them we are seeing a lot more people posting things like ‘if somebody is vulnerable why can they not just stay in isolation’ and that’s a very slippery slope towards awful things.

"You cannot treat disabled people like they are a separate category. Why should we expect disabled people to stay inside because of a disease that is running rampant in the country because of government failures?

"Parents of disabled children are not allowed to make the decision on whether it is safe to send their children back to a school without Covid measures in place on their own.

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Coun Jayne Dunn.Coun Jayne Dunn.
Coun Jayne Dunn.

"They have to speak to consultants and carers and get it in writing and then get that approved by the school. This can take months.

"That is added stress to parents, and also added strain to the healthcare system.

"And in the meantime, what happens? Parents get door stepped by welfare officers and social services just for trying to do what is best for their vulnerable children.”

The Government’s announcement about the lifting of measures in schools in autumn comes in response to concerns about the rising number of children who have to quarantine because they are the contacts of confirmed cases.

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Ministers have written to secondary schools asking them to prepare to potentially replace isolation rules with testing.

A spokesman said: “We are provisionally asking secondary schools and colleges to prepare to offer on-site testing when students return for the new academic year, so that schools are ready in case it is needed to keep as many children as possible in face-to-face education."

This comes following research which showed that, due to regular isolation periods, and before that the prolonged period of home schooling during national lockdown, children have lost weeks worth of face-to-face education and this was impacting both their futures and present mental health.

Ana Yousef, another Sheffield mother, said that she is concerned about lost education and the impact it has on her children’s futures and preparation for their GCSEs.

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However, she said she does not trust the Government to make the right decisions about lifting all lockdown measures in schools.

She said: “You listen to the news and you are not convinced the Government know what they are doing.

"There are so many mixed messages. Them going back into school and then having to come home to isolate for 10 days bothers me.

"But if schools lifting measures is just going to mean children get ill or exposed to Covid cases and have to miss more education, that doesn’t make sense either.

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"It seems to me like they are using kids as guinea pigs to test out ideas they don’t really know will work.”

Ms Jones agrees that the impact on some children was ‘massive’.

She said: "It has been a post code lottery for parents, often based on school age. Some schools have just been concerned with children sitting exams soon and have neglected the rest.

"For children with education, health and care plans to help with their needs there have been cases where schools have just not known what to do.

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"And sadly there are some parents who are unable to teach, or have not been enabled to do so. This is not a slight against them, but the government should have helped provide resources to support those parents.”

While she acknowledges that some children are losing out educationally by isolating and being taught from home, Ms Jones does not think that justifies ‘rushing’ children back into school before it is safe to do so.

"There is a lot we still don’t know,” she said. “We don’t know everything about long Covid, for example. And if children are going back into school without isolation measures then it is not just them who are affected. They could test negative and still be carriers and sit next to somebody on the bus who gets ill, or they could bring it home to a family member who is vulnerable.

"The government needs to fund schools to get filtration systems to make sure the air is clean, needs to vaccinate children, and until schools are safe should be funding a national education system – like the Oak Academy that they have already funded – with teachers delivering online lessons, rather than rushing children back into classrooms.”

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Councillor Jayne Dunn, Executive Member for Education, Children and Families said that the council is doing its best to ensure a return to schools without isolation rules could be done safely, but urged that national Government to provide clarity and stability.

Cllr Dunn said: "Being in school is the best place for our children and the disruption to their education over the past 16 months has meant that they have missed out on critical social interaction, routine and personal development opportunities.

"It is vital that we keep as many children in face-to-face classes as possible and our local Public Health teams along with schools have been doing a sterling job of assessing, managing and taking action to slow and reduce transmission in schools in order to minimise the number of children asked to isolate and lose out on learning.

"If the rules to isolation for pupils is going to change, it needs to be done at a national level and Government need to act urgently and responsively. Our children and young people ​deserve some clarity and stability as they have already been through so much this last year. It is vital that schools and families are given adequate time to prepare for new legislation, to lessen any further disruption to pupils for the sake of their education and their health and wellbeing."