By Kathrine Jebsen Moore
Reading through the daily Lockdown Sceptics newsletter the other day, I was dismayed to see that a petition to allow parents not to send their children back to school had received around 65,000 signatures (now over half a million). I wasn’t overly surprised, having noticed the comments on social media and the reports of worried parents and teachers, but I thought: Surely it’s not just I who, having looked at the available evidence, thinks it’s high time our children got back to their regular routine of school and nursery – not via screens, but the real, physical thing? In Scotland, schools probably won’t open until the autumn, and plans to get children back to school next month in England are being contested by the teaching unions, so I started my own petition claiming the opposite: that children need to get back to school.
The arguments in favour of reopening are many, and have been well made by education experts like Joanna Williams and the Children’s Commissioner for England. It’s disappointing to see the teaching unions, supported by the British Medical Association, opposing the plans and in effect telling their pupils that schools and education don’t matter. For if they don’t matter now – after months where many children have been cut off from their network of friends, wider family and teachers – then when? Yet, as this collective psychosis of fear has taken hold (thanks to the relentless messaging from the government and the media), it seems that large parts of the population have become scared to resume anything resembling normal life.
Fear, when expressed in online comments, can look ugly. I was reminded of this when I shared my petition to a Facebook group I thought might take an interest in the topic. The Edinburgh Gossip Girls, or EGG as it’s known, is a group of 16,000 women in the Scottish capital, plenty of whom are mothers. Edinburgh’s schools have a good reputation, even though Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP has failed to maintain the standards that were once a hallmark of Scottish education. Edinburgh’s private schools account for 25% of pupils, compared to just 4% in the rest of the country. I imagined that many mums at these expensive schools – as well as the very good local ones – were eager to send their children back after eight weeks – the equivalent of a summer holiday, but without the change of scenery and the social aspects. I was wrong.
It seems the evidence that children are largely unaffected by the virus had not made an impression on the majority of commenters, who were quick to state their opinions. Within a few minutes my post had 62 angry emojis, six stunned ones, three sad ones, and only 26 likes – and one heart. The comments reinforced the mood. As well as the simple “that’ll be a no” and “wouldn’t dream of signing this”, it quickly progressed to mud-slinging, strawmen and high tempers. Some comments were, worryingly, from teachers, who failed to show the professional pride that has been apparent among NHS workers and others who’ve continued to do their jobs during the pandemic. Although a few were supportive, I’ll include a selection which conveys the general spirit:
“Eh, not a chance. Most kids are fine without school.”
“Education matters but so does not dying.”
“Can everybody please report to admin and get this goady post taken down.”
“How many teachers are a fair price for your? More than 65 school staff under the age of 65 in England and Wales have died of Covid already according to ONS figures from last week. How many? How sick of your own children are you?”
“Without proper testing and aggressive tracking of the population reopening schools would be dangerous. The petition is dangerous and unadvisable…unless you don’t care if more people die and suffer.”
Another accused me of having had “too many daytime G&Ts”.
“Boo hoo, my kids miss their friends…they’ll miss them a lot more if they’re dead.”
That was the last comment before the admin switched off comments, with the words: “I’m not sure you’re going to get much support here, and this is a post that clearly stirs up a lot of angst and emotion which I’m trying to avoid. This is one for your personal FB, thanks.”
So with that, I had no chance to respond or refute what had been levelled at me. What I had hoped would attract a few signatures instead became a pile-on which ended abruptly. What surprised me more, however, were the many encouraging comments that landed in my inbox. One was from a doctor who said she was in full agreement with my petition and my views but couldn’t speak out in public because of her job. Her message was poignant, but unfortunately I can’t share it as I promised not to – even anonymously. A common theme among the messages of support was the disappointment that the subject had turned so political, and that even innocent questions such as “Is H&M still open?” had been met with a deluge of accusations. With tempers so frayed, I was pleased to get so many encouraging messages, but suddenly there was one that was a bit different, from a name I recognised as one of the trolls: “Got a G&T to get back to, have you? You’re an absolute danger.” To which I replied: “You’re obviously bored at home. I don’t think you understand the arguments.” She responded: “I understand fine, thanks. I am not in any way bored. Right-wing cunts like you make me sick. It’s every civilised person’s duty to stand up to right-wing fanatics wherever they are found.” I told her I would report her to the admin, and she blocked me. The admin of EGG has so far not responded to me.
At the time of writing, my petition has attracted just over 700 signatures. Nothing to match the many who seem to want to protect their children from a virus that has so far killed two children in England and Wales since the outbreak began – a risk of one in 5.3 million – but I hope that a sense of perspective will start to emerge among the wider population as the pandemic retreats. For those who worry about children being “superspreaders”, this seems to have been debunked, and scientists have yet to identify any child under the age of ten who has passed the virus on. It has never been completely safe to send your children to school – or indeed venture outside at all – and let’s not forget that most accidents happen at home. Equating “home” with “safe” has proven a very effective campaign slogan, and primed our thoughts and behaviour to the degree that it’s been reported that it’s worked almost too well. This is not a message we want our children to take in. It’s the opposite of the life-embracing, curious and confident outlook that we as adults should seek to nurture in the younger generation. The longer the schools are closed, the more they’ll miss, and it’s going to be the most disadvantaged who will bear the brunt. The reactions I received in response to my calling for children to resume their education, although upsetting to read, are like water off a duck’s back to me; but it worries me that children are surrounded by adults who hold views like these, and who can’t see past their fear, sabotaging their children’s prospects in the process.