Growing numbers of parents concerned about the spread of coronavirus are flouting official advice by keeping their children off school to protect their health and that of vulnerable relatives.
The government has so far resisted pressure to close schools in the same way other countries have done to tackle the spread of Covid-19 – but there is mounting unease at the escalating situation, which has led to some parents taking the decision into their own hands.
Jazmine Parham, 31, who lives in King’s Sutton, near Banbury, Oxfordshire, has three children. She told HuffPost UK she mulled over the situation over the weekend before deciding to keep them off school starting this week.
“We are a very high risk family and I just cannot take the chance of my children getting ill with coronavirus themselves or them being carriers and giving it to high risk members of the family,” she said.
Jazmine has fibromyalgia, a long term condition that causes pain all over the body, as well as chronic fatigue syndrome (ME), and her immune system is weak.
After becoming increasingly disturbed by the rising number of coronavirus cases and deaths, Jazmine sent emails to all three of her children’s schools informing them that they wouldn’t be attending school until after the Easter break unless the government advised otherwise.
Jazmine explained to HuffPost UK: “My stepson Jack, who is 13, is autistic and goes to a special school in Rugby. He has got a cough so I informed the school and they have authorised the absence.
“My 12-year-old daughter Angelina has asthma and her school is saying if I keep her off school, they will put it down as an unauthorised absence, but I just don’t want to risk sending her in.
“My son Oscar, who is almost three, goes to a pre-school and the headteacher there and her son, who is a teacher at the school, are both self isolating after returning from Italy.
“With my immune system being so low, I cannot risk the children getting coronavirus and bringing it home. Even though the general consensus is that children don’t get it as bad, they are carriers of it and I don’t want to put anyone else who is vulnerable at risk of getting it either.”
Boris Johnson has so far resisted pleas to close schools, but many believe the situation will change rapidly and that schools could soon shut down after all. The prime minister on Monday urged Britons to avoid all “non-essential” contact, including by visiting pubs and restaurants
Teaching unions and school leaders are holding talks with education secretary Gavin Williamson to discuss plans for schools and colleges.
Jazmine says she was “appalled” that the government has not already made the decision to close schools given what is happening in the rest of the world.
“I am appalled at the reaction of this government given that more than 300 people have died in Italy over the last day or so. It just proves the UK is not acting quickly enough in the face of this virus.”
After posting on social media that her children would not be attending school until the coronavirus pandemic has passed, Jazmine was reassured to realise that many other parents across the country felt the same way and were already keeping their children out of school or considering doing so.
“A lot of people are worried about getting prosecuted and getting a fine for not sending their children to school,” she said. “But at the end of the day, I think our family’s health is more important than getting a fine.
“We shouldn’t be prosecuted for protecting our kids and other people from this coronavirus pandemic.”
The prospect of getting fined for failing to send their children to school is worrying many parents. A petition launched at UK government and parliament petitions titled “No prosecution for parents that remove a child from school during a pandemic” has already reached in excess of 63,000 signatures.
The petition states: “Professionals do not know enough about the disease to 100% ensure our children and/or their families are safe.
“If a child picked it up at school and is asymptomatic, they will pass it to family that could be old and/or vulnerable. As well as many children being vulnerable and having health issues.
“We understand the economy of closing all schools but for those parents that are able to do this should be given the option. It’s a safeguarding concern by any parent and should be taken seriously.”
The petition also says parents should be able to remove their children from school when there is a pandemic such as coronavirus without negative actions by schools or local authorities such as losing their child’s place in the school or facing any kind of prosecution.
Another petition urging the government to “Close schools/colleges down for an appropriate amount of time amidst Covid-19” has reached 600,000 signatures.
This petition says it wants the government to at least consider closing schools and colleges down as soon as possible due to the growing fear among parents and students.
It states: “In our view, the government and health officials around the world are more ‘reactive’ rather than ‘proactive’. This will result in more spread as time is given for the virus to do so.”
Jason Street, of Northants, says he and his wife Sherry became concerned after their 14-year-old son – who went on a school trip to London two weeks ago – complained of pain when breathing last week.
Their household contains seven people, including Jason’s parents – who are 74 and 76.
When their son complained of pain when breathing, the couple immediately put him in his room and called NHS 111 who said they would do a swab test.
However, the following day, they said they would not be testing him and that he should remain in isolation for seven days.
Jason, who works from home for a global company, says he has colleagues who work in China, Italy and Spain, and has seen how the spread of the virus has affected lives.
“As my parents are in the group most at risk, we do not want to have the children going back to school and risk them bringing coronavirus into the house,” he said.
“So after the isolation period is over this Wednesday for my son, we will not be allowing our kids back to school.
“We will be trying to get the children to use as many online learning facilities as possible, but the health of the family is more important at this time.”
Jason added: “Children may not be affected as much by coronavirus, but the risk of them spreading it must be high seeing how other colds spread through schools.
“Some people are saying that children should stay at school because parents need to go to work and that children would have to stay with grandparents. But how many children are picked up from school by grandparents?”
Childcare networking site childcare.co.uk asked its 2m members whether the government should temporarily close all schools to cope with the outbreak. More than three quarters, 77%, said yes.
Parents are scared and just want to keep their children close to them because they then feel they have control."Emma Bradley, Childcare’s parenting expert,
Emma Bradley, Childcare’s parenting expert, says – as a mother of three – she understands the conflicting emotions other parents are experiencing.
She told HuffPost UK: “Parents are scared and just want to keep their children close to them because they then feel they have control.
“Their overwhelming feeling is of nurturing and that biological need to protect by hunkering down and all sticking together.
“Parents have that urge that by having their children with them and within their sight, they are keeping them safe.
“It is all fed by fear. People don’t know what is coming and are getting so many mixed messages, and social media is just full of conflicting information. So people just want to hide away with their loved ones.”
Emma admitted she would rather her 20-year-old daughter came home from university. But she’s continuing to send her 16-year-old and 10-year-old to school, and says children are safe where they are even though she anticipates there will be a shutdown of schools soon.
“I think at the moment we are underestimating how hard it is going to be to keep our children at home when schools do close.
“It’s not going to be for just a week or so. Children will get bored and restless.
“I don’t think we are there yet with needing to close schools, but I do understand why some parents are feeling they don’t want to send their children to school and I would not judge anyone for that.
“There is no right or wrong at this time and people have to do what is right for them.”
Emma added she believed schools and local authorities would be understanding given the current climate and wouldn’t prosecute parents for keeping kids off school.