Time and again the government has cited the gap between rich and poor children as the primary reason for keeping schools open during the pandemic.
But parents battling poverty have condemned ministers for using their children as an “excuse” for repeated failures to act.
“There is already a gap between rich and poor,” mum-of-two Laura Jackson told HuffPost UK. “It makes me feel furious that the government is pretending the reason for keeping schools open is to do with supporting poorer families.
“They don’t speak for us – we are struggling financially, but want all schools to close for the safety of our children and everyone else.”
The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted and exacerbated inequalities in Britain. Poorer children often have fewer opportunities to learn at home – through a lack of space, technology or parents’ time. Charities and academics have pointed to a crisis that has seen the attainment gap between rich and poor children widen.
But the very parents who have the most to lose told HuffPost UK this shouldn’t be used as a reason for keeping schools open and risking the health of their children and communities.
Teaching unions have repeatedly called for schools to be closed after coronavirus infections began increasing in September.
Education secretary Gavin Williamson accused them of being content to put pupil progress “on hold” and said he was particularly worried about disadvantaged children missing out if schools were forced to close.
“Every day they [disadvantaged children] spend out of school is another that risks allowing a gap between them and the rest of their class to widen,” he wrote as the second national lockdown began – during which schools stayed open.
“We had more than 10 years of austerity before Covid happened,” said single mum-of-three Terri-Anne Hamer, who lives in Leeds.
“The government wasn’t bothered about poverty and inequalities before coronavirus happened and are now just using them as buzzwords to justify what they are doing.
“I personally believe they are using poor children as an excuse for keeping the schools open and to cover their backs against the backlash when it all goes wrong by saying: ‘But we were only thinking about the poor kids.’”
Hamer, 35, juggled caring for and homeschooling her three children single-handedly during the first coronavirus lockdown while studying for a degree and struggling financially.
She admitted begging her internet provider not to cut her off, being forced to visit food banks to feed her children, and surviving on just a few hours’ sleep a night as she did her own university work after the children went to bed.
“If the government truly cared about poverty and inequality, why were families like me struggling and going to food banks to survive?” she asked. “Why did the government not provide proper support for families in poverty right at the start of the pandemic?
“It is firmly my belief that they are using poverty as an excuse as they are scared of a public backlash for not closing schools earlier.
“They are trying to use the vulnerable as a defence to protect them from the fallout when things go wrong.”
Hamer, who is mum to Kaemon, 11, Amayah, seven, and AJ, five, managed to pass her degree despite all the things she was juggling and now wants to study for a PhD.
She knows her mental health will suffer if schools close, but wants her children and community protected against coronavirus – and believes shutting them is the only way.
Mum-of-two Jackson, who lives in Bristol, has made the decision to keep her daughters off school – even though she and her partner Craig have struggled financially throughout the pandemic and know it might lead to them being fined.
Jackson, an online tutor for a charity, told HuffPost UK she is “very frightened” by the escalating coronavirus infections and believes all schools should definitely be closed.
She is furious at the government trying to defend keeping schools open by citing vulnerable children living in poverty.
“To say this is anything to do with the gap between rich and poor is a lie and is disgusting,” said the 41-year-old, who has a seven-year-old and three-year-old daughters.
“It is a shameful thing to say when we have endured more than a decade of austerity and the government has done absolutely nothing about poverty.
“We have had to have footballer Marcus Rashford campaign to feed our children over Christmas so to pretend they actually care about inequality now is unforgivable.
“Our children are being used as pawns and we are sick and tired of it.”
She added: “They don’t speak for us – we are struggling financially, but want all schools to close for the safety of our children and everyone else.”
Victoria Benson, chief executive of Gingerbread, the single parent charity, told HuffPost UK parents are worried about sending their children to school and risking their family’s health – and said that the needs of single parents had been consistently neglected by the government.
“Parents are concerned about sending their children back to school and the potential for risk to their family’s health,” she said.
“This can be particularly worrying for single parents as, if they become ill, who will care for their children?”
Varun Kanish, campaigns manager at Turn2us, a national charity helping people in financial hardship, said although school closures caused added pressure for parents, they shouldn’t be used as an excuse to delay action.
“This crisis has revealed the stark inequalities felt by parents in the face of these changes,” he said, ”[but] this should not dissuade the government from taking immediate action to slow the spread of this devastating virus.”
But he told HuffPost UK many low income families had faced significant difficulties in accessing remote learning and that more needs to be done to support those who might not have access to devices and the internet.
“We urge the government to act quickly to flatten the curve – while also doing more to ensure parents have access to support needed to still provide for their children and get by while learning is taken online.”
Action for Children is urging the government to make children central to the nation’s recovery plans.
“If it is to prevent long-term scarring to our society and economy, a focus on lives and livelihoods is not enough – the government must act on life chances too,” said Imran Hussain, director of policy and campaigns at Action for Children.
“We know poverty holds children back and we know the financial worries for parents caused by a national lockdown and school closures.
“The added costs of home learning, including laptops and internet access, were one of the main reasons why families needed crisis grants from us last year.
“The prime minister must make this generation of children as central to the nation’s coronavirus recovery plans as health and the economy.
“He can start by giving struggling families peace of mind by promising he will not be cutting Universal Credit payments by over £1,000 a year in the spring.”