A teacher claims some children “vanished” from online schooling during lockdown to hunt for food as families were hit by the coronavirus crisis.
The 31-year-old said teens who had caring roles confided they were skipping classes to provide for their siblings.
The teacher has shed light on the untold hardship faced by kids and key worker school staff in the deprived area of England’s North West – one of the worst-hit regions in the pandemic.
Earlier this week a shock new Centre for Social Justice study found nearly 100,000 kids had failed to return to schools full-time after they reopened between September and December.
The teacher told the Mirror how staff forced to transform into ‘social workers’ faced a personal toll during lockdown.
They worked 14-hour days before having to door-knock to track down “missing” kids who were skipping online classes to find food for their siblings, she claimed.
For students who are carers or responsible for younger siblings, “online learning is the least of their worries,” the teacher explained.
Schools and families are facing a fresh crisis as new government figures today showed pupil absences have hit a record high since classrooms reopened in March, with around one in 20 pupils – or 375,000 kids in total – out of class for Covid reasons.
Department for Education officials confirmed school “bubble” rules could be ditched as frustration grows over the the rising numbers of kids forced to quarantine because they are the contacts of confirmed cases.
The teacher told how the personal stress she experienced during the pandemic felt so overwhelming at times she started using anti-depressants.
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She said: “When some students were missing our teachers or support staff were going to homes like social workers going, ‘is everything okay? Why are you not going to school?’
“A lot of students are not feeling particularly engaged, and mental health has significantly declined.
“We’ve had students who are caring for siblings or family members, we’ve had some students who are trying to look for part-time work – it’s really sad, they should just be trying to concentrate on school.
“We live in a really deprived area and they are not bothered about school – they are concerned more about where their next meal is coming from.”
The government’s technology rollout for disadvantaged children during lockdown had not reached everyone, she added.
Some families were sharing a laptop between five children as not enough were sent out for every pupil, she claimed.
“It was very difficult because – and this wasn’t the school’s fault – all the teachers were thrown in the deep end of how to use this brand new technology we had never used before,” she said.
“I think people have no idea and thought ‘it’s just going online’- but you have to adapt everything you’ve already planned for (the year.)”
Education unions and charities have highlighted a disparity emerging between schools during the pandemic.
While some families could afford multiple laptops and wealthy communities drove fundraising to plug gaps, in poorer areas schools relied on the government and what little locals could give.
The teacher said in her school it meant some children skipping remote classes so a sibling could use the computer.
“You might have five students in a house sharing one laptop – sometimes you would notice only one sibling has been on today so that must mean clearly they have the laptop today,” she said.
The government’s flip-flopping on the return to schools ahead of England’s third lockdown left teachers scrambling, she added.
“What’s really sad is that we’ve been completely ostracised a lot in the press – called ‘work-shy,’ ‘always complaining,’ ‘don’t want to go back to work’.”
“Those comments I saw on news stories really impacted my mental health more than the lockdown. When you’ve been at work more than 14 hours, going into overtime then to read those comments broke my heart.
“Because of those last-minute decisions we had to work really long hours and obviously teachers have their own families to look after, other people to look after. Myself – I was a carer for my brother.
“I know a lot of teachers were getting really exhausted home-schooling with their own children, looking after their families, then going back to getting lessons ready for their own students.”
She said the government had relied on teachers’ “goodwill” during the pandemic, saying she believes officials knew they were likely to work overtime as they worry so much about pupils.
She criticised Boris Johnson’s £1.7billion “catch up” fund for schools in light of his government’s £10bn rearmament spending announcement.
“What’s more important – students’ education or nuclear weapons?” she added.
The Department for Education (DfE) said it was working with parents, teachers and schools to develop a long-term plan to make sure all pupils have the chance to recover from the pandemic.
In response to the teacher’s concerns about a lack of tech, the department said it made 1.3 million laptops and tablets available to pupils who needed them most in a £400m investment.
The teacher’s school told the Mirror it ensured each child identified as vulnerable received daily communication with a record of each point of contact in lockdown, ensuring every pupil was accounted for and monitored in line with safeguarding procedures.
The school said it was unaware of any record of students mentioning having to undertake work to support their families during lockdown.
But it could not comment on whether this was the case at other organisations which the teacher may have been in contact with via her union.
A school spokesperson said: “The duty of care and the safeguarding of our students was a key focus of our attention throughout lockdown, alongside ensuring all students continued to receive an excellent quality of education to continue their studies as normally as possible given these unprecedented times.”
But NASUWT teachers’ union’s general secretary Patrick Roach said schools had been largely left to source tech and help vulnerable pupils from within their own budgets.
“Despite the Government’s pledge to provide devices and internet connectivity to all pupils it is clear that for many these only came after many months of being at home or in some cases never materialised at all,” he said.
“The precarious circumstances in which many pupils were already living have been exacerbated by the impact of the pandemic and members have also reported pupils going missing from remote education, in some cases due to the need to take on caring responsibilities for family members.
“Teachers and school leaders have gone out of their way to try to ensure pupils could maintain their learning throughout the last year, providing learning packs for pupils where access to the internet was not possible and even providing food, toiletries and other essentials to families struggling to make ends meet.
“The Government has effectively left schools to pick up the pieces of the wider problems of poverty, inequality and insecure work which drive many of the problems pupils experienced during the pandemic.”
‘Pandemic exposed inequality’
A large-scale teachers survey found teachers at England’s most deprived schools were the most worried about pupils falling behind during the year of remote learning.
It also revealed many middle-aged staff felt abandoned during the pandemic as they were expected to suddenly adapt to virtual teaching as quickly as their younger and more digital-savvy colleagues.
The Open Data Institute (ODI) analysed a NASUWT survey of 4,490 teachers’ experiences during the pandemic.
- The survey found almost 60% of teachers who responded to the survey said at least half their class lost ground educationally during lockdowns as pupils were taught remotely.
- Less than one-tenth felt well prepared for online teaching and fewer than one-fifth felt well supported, with teachers aged 50-59 saying they felt least prepared and least well supported
- Fewer than half said they felt fairly prepared or well prepared for remote learning, with older teachers less likely to feel prepared than younger teachers.
- At the most deprived 25% of schools, nearly 60% of teachers said half or more of the class had lost ground academically over the past 12 months. Nearly half of all teachers at the least deprived 25% of schools said the same.
- A staggering 70% of teachers in classrooms with high numbers of pupils from households on Universal Credit or claiming Jobseekers Allowance said the children had lost ground academically in the last 12 months.
*The Mirror is not naming the school or teacher due to the safeguarding issues faced by vulnerable pupils.