'Collect Child, Leave Immediately': How Covid-19 Tainted Playground Pick-Ups

Lockdown has changed the way parents socialise at the school gate. I understand why – but I still miss it.

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When my daughter started school four years ago, I had no idea what it would mean... for the parents.

I hadn’t realised that just as my child entered a new stage of social learning; I, too, would find myself navigating the tricky territory of new friendship circles. At times, it felt like being plunged straight back into the drama of my own school days – except that it was “mum cliques”, not groups of pre-teens.

Yet, I also hadn’t anticipated making brand-new friends... for life. Friends who didn’t just smile at the school gate, but would become shoulders to cry on, holiday companions and dance partners on a wild night out.

More poignantly, I hadn’t fully appreciated how much I would come to value the daily contact I had with my parent pals at the start and end of every day – not to mention the day trips at half-term, and the weekly, wine-fuelled playdates.

Receiving a sympathetic hug from a friend on the playground while you’re tearing your hair out because your child has refused to go to school? The same friend who messages you later to say, “that looked stressful – come round for tea, after pick-up”? Worth its weight in gold.

Until... lockdown. Now, there are a new bunch of social rules, designed to minimise physical contact between parents and carers. And it’s hard.

richard johnson via Getty Images

My children’s school in east London has dealt with the difficulties of the pandemic impeccably – but some of the rhetoric inevitably came off cold, because of the seriousness of the research, and resulting government guidelines. We received the following messages relating to our new routines:

Drop off: Please note that in the mornings for drop off, parents will need to line up at the gate and wait with their child to do a temperature check before they are allowed entry to school. Parents will not be allowed into the playground at morning drop off time.

Pick up: Parents come into playground and stand in their class ‘zone’, which will be signposted. Wait, following social distance rules, collect your child and leave playground immediately. Please ensure only one adult does this.

While I wholeheartedly understand and appreciate the need for distance, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t miss it, now I’m reduced to mouthing “hello” to those I see on the nursery run. The rest of the school isn’t back, yet – so there are many families I simply won’t catch sight of for another two months.

The conversations I have with fellow mums, dads and carers have been reduced to the precious few moments before and after my son walks through the gate to meet his teacher – and have his mandatory temperature gun check.

I miss lingering in the playground to kiss my kids as they go into class; taking the teachers aside to tell them, face-to-face, when they have a tummy ache, or are feeling upset. I miss waving, smiling – and hugging – friends who pass by on the frantic morning rush to work. And giving (and receiving) a sympathetic smile when someone’s child is having a DEFCON 1-powered tantrum.

I even miss rolling my eyes in cheeky acknowledgement when a friend belts past you, dragging their kid along with them – because you know that while they’re running impossibly late today, it’ll be you tomorrow.

I’ve gotten so used to the pick-up and drop-off being a standard part of my day – one full of social interactions, chatter, and smiles – that I hadn’t realised how much I’d miss them when they weren’t there.

These are small sacrifices to make, of course, in the face of so much fear and concern for health. But it’s important to notice their absence, because in realising our losses, we gain new awareness of their value.

So, roll on September – and (hopefully) those smiles at the school gate.