COVID-19: Children of working poor hit hardest by remote learning, as schools struggle to meet demand

·6-min read

Despite snow and biting cold, families formed a queue outside the Pickle Palace in Chopwell.

The former mining community in Gateshead was once nicknamed "little Moscow" because of strong support here for the Communist Party.

It now looks like a Soviet scene, with figures shuffling to keep warm in the snow.

Grassroots charity workers here are noticing something that is being observed up and down the country; that there is a new section of society looking for help: the "working poor" and it is their children who are suffering most from the closure of schools.

Several, who would normally be taking their kids to Chopwell Primary school, are instead queuing outside the community centre next door for their best opportunity to get food in the cupboards.

The Pickle Palace is not a food bank as such, it takes leftover food from supermarkets and allows people to pay only as much as they can afford to take away a selection of groceries.

"There are new faces here and it's the working poor, isn't it?" says charity worker Hannah Reay.

"They're at that sort of level where they can't quite go to a food bank, but they still struggle to fill their cupboards every week. I feel like we're an interim because going to a food bank isn't an easy process, I don't think.

"People have lost everything. And I think it's those people who have lost work because of COVID-19, but also those on zero hours contracts who've got nothing to fall back on.

"And the process of getting your benefits takes such a long time, there's a period where there's just nothing.

"The working poor's children who are also likely to find school closures having a biggest impact on their educational development.

Ms Reay added: "Access to technology for online learning is a key concern, but also parents struggling to provide a good environment for children to work in, pay for heating, and those who don't traditionally qualify for free school meals trying to find extra food for children at home - and give them the attention they need."

Charity worker and parent for two Tolulope Cecile from Gateshead is originally from Nigeria and is having difficulty teaching her primary age children phonics.

She said: "It is a challenge for me because I find I pronounce it wrongly. And when I'm sitting there my son will say 'mum, it's not like that'.

"I confuse them more. I'm scared of teaching them the wrong thing. So, I'm not being helpful."

A survey by Teacher Tapp seen exclusively by Sky News shows that primary schools have faced higher demands for children to attend than secondary schools. And this has increased dramatically during the latest lockdown.

This week 80% of primary schools said more than 5% of their children were attending compared to 28% of secondary schools. Some schools are seeing over half their students coming in.

Back during the March lockdown 39% of primary educators said that more than 5% of their children were coming in, compared to 9% of secondary educators.

In each school there is a balance between ensuring the children who need to come in are identified, but that the school doesn't over-populate and thus pose a risk to teachers, pupils and their parents.

At Chopwell Primary School head teacher Vic Bruce sets up daily phone calls to kids categorised as vulnerable.

If they don't respond, social workers are informed, and they also try to make contact with the children online.

But there's a shortfall in the number laptops that were originally promised by the government.

"We got a third of what we were initially expecting," says Ms Bruce.

"We've had to use school budget to buy others, to provide for the children and families who don't have them, and we still have a waiting list."

The prime minister told the Commons that over 600,000 devices have been provided to schools since the pandemic - but many head teachers are still reporting a huge shortfall in the numbers needed, with Ofcom estimating 1.5 million children are without digital devices on which they can learn.

Government guidelines for this lockdown indicate that children who don't have access to technology can be classed as vulnerable and therefore come to school - but Ms Bruce responds to this saying: "If all the kids who didn't have laptops came in, I might as well have just opened my doors.

"We've provided 30 I think so far to a school of 180 in our mainstream. Everyone's trying their absolute best, but I've got to make this as safe for the children who come in and as safe for the teachers as well."

Ms Bruce adds: "At the minute there's around 20 families who've caught it (the virus) over the Christmas holidays or the last few weeks. One parent's just gone to hospital today, we're very worried about her. We've suddenly had far more cases than we've had in this whole pandemic."

In this climate of fear over infection another primary school in the Gateshead area, Kelvin Grove, has sent a notice to parents saying that the numbers of vulnerable and key worker children are "over-subscribed" and "with more demand for places than we have space."

The headteacher Ms Thompson writes: "I am currently exploring potential caps on class bubble sizes with public health and Gateshead & Safety team. If numbers don't reduce in certain classes, we will have to apply oversubscription criteria."

Parents are conflicted about this. They want to properly educate their children but have genuine concerns about sending them in.

Kirsty Coates, a nurse from Chopwell, has eight children, seven of them have COVID-19. She doesn't know, but it's possible they contracted it at school last term.

Her husband Steven, who is asthmatic, now has the virus and is seriously ill with the disease.

Last night he was admitted to hospital with breathing difficulties, he has infected lungs and a blood clot caused by the virus.

Kirsty says "There was a lot of talk that children can't get it or don't get it as much. Well, I've got 7 out of my 8 have all got it. In different forms, but they've got it."

Kirsty thinks it was the right decision to move to online learning even though it's hugely disruptive and affects her ability to work.

She said: "We do have the technology and the schools have been brilliant setting up remote learning, but it's difficult when I've got a 6-week-old and an 18-month-old, and then trying to share between three rooms, to try and show the children how to join online meetings."

As a key worker Kirsty could take the children in but has decided even when they become COVID-19 free, she doesn't want to take the risk.

The community in Chopwell exemplifies the problems facing the whole country - they are struggling with the lockdown, but they are also fearful of the virus.