Self-isolation and bubble arrangements for school pupils should end as soon as possible, the new Children’s Commissioner for England has said.
Describing lockdown restrictions as a “real trauma” for many young people, Dame Rachel de Souza said there is an urgent need for children to get back to normal.
Her comments come as school leaders in Greater Manchester reported that bubble closures are having a ‘devastating’ impact on pupils.
Some youngsters have had numerous rounds of remote learning as the number of schools affected by positive Covid cases continues to rise.
Newman RC College headteacher Glyn Potts has described the situation as “just relentless”.
Last night The Guardian reported that ministers are preparing to overhaul the system for schools in England when they return in September following the summer break.
The paper said an announcement may be made in the coming days to allow schools time to prepare, with the requirement to quarantine expected to be replaced with a new testing regime.
Currently children have to self-isolate for 10 days if another pupil in their bubble tests positive for coronavirus.
It has resulted in a sharp rise in pupils off school for Covid-related reasons, with the latest official figures showing 239,000 children in England missing classes – as the numbers trebled in the space of a week.
Dame Rachel told The Daily Telegraph that the need for children to go in and out of isolation was “a really big issue” and was proving “incredibly frustrating” for pupils and teachers alike.
She said: “With bubbles, I think everybody would like it if we could get back to normal, as soon as possible. Obviously we have to be safe, and we have to take advice, but it’s very very restrictive.
“The experience of lockdown has been a real trauma, and I think we shouldn’t underestimate it. Children are really troubled, and it’s right across the board.”
Dame Rachel said young people, who had seen their normal childhood disrupted in order to protect older people, were now struggling with their mental health.
“They have done a huge amount for us, I mean they really were the least at risk of this and they’ve given up 19 weeks of their education, they’ve had all this anxiety and concern and exams cancelled; they’ve taken a big burden for us,” she said.
The commissioner said although adults largely assumed “kids are resilient, they’ll bounce back”, the results this year of a sweeping survey on British pupils dubbed The Big Ask showed “they are telling us that they have got these worries and we need to listen to them”.
The survey of more than 550,000 children, run by the office of the Children’s Commissioner, had shown mental health was the biggest concern for 20 percent of respondents, a figure that rose to 40 percent for those aged 14-17, the Telegraph reported.
A former teacher herself, Dame Rachel said she had “real concern” for nursery-aged children and those starting school, who were at an age when they “need to be playing and learning and developing language skills” but were instead “stuck inside for too long”.
Here in Greater Manchester, children in Year 5 at Bridgewater Primary School in Little Hulton are on their second lot of isolation since May half term. They only returned to school last Tuesday after one lot of isolation and have now been told to stay off again.
Meanwhile, many high schools are having to send entire year groups home because of rising cases – including Droylsden Academy, which we reported earlier has sent Years 7 and 10 to learn remotely; Reddish Vale High, where the whole of Year 10 has been sent home; and Newhouse Academy in Rochdale, where all Year 8s are now home.
At St Anne’s RC High in Stockport, some Year 10 pupils were due to return from isolation today, Monday, but after further cases at the school, they’ve been told to stay off for another week so that the whole year group is all learning remotely.
And at Little Lever School in Bolton, Years 7 and 8 are both learning remotely because of the number of staff having to isolate.
In a video message to Newman RC parents, Mr Potts shared his frustration over the current situation.
“Regrettably we know that we’ve got over 400 young people isolating at home out of the 1,200 who should be in school, which is just absolutely devastating – and regrettably we’ve just had another positive case so we’re sending home some more students,” he said.
“This is just relentless and I accept fully that it’s of huge frustration to parents. It is incredibly complex and difficult for us and we have very little say in how we can manage this.”
In Oldham – where Newman RC is based – at least 3,500 pupils are currently isolating from 94 bubble closures.
Gerard Jones, the authority’s managing director of children and young people, said ‘school attendance remains a major challenge’.
“We are still pushing for a revision to isolation arrangements and for a decision on vaccinating young people over the age of 12 from the government,” he said.
“On Friday overall school attendance nationally was about 83 percent, whilst in Greater Manchester it was about 76 percent with a declining trend nationally and locally. These figures are based upon about 65 percent return from schools, so the real picture is probably worse.
“We would normally expect to see school attendance at about 95 percent so that’s quite a gap. This will disadvantage pupils from Greater Manchester and the North West if exams return as planned next year.”
Official figures on Monday showed another rise in infections with almost 23,000 lab-confirmed cases – the highest daily rise since January 30.
Despite the increase, new Health Secretary Sajid Javid said there was “no reason” why the final stage of lockdown lifting in England should not go ahead as planned.
In a Commons statement, he said the country would have to “learn to live with” the disease as there was no “zero risk” option.