In weather stations up and down the country this morning, I fancy, the anemometers will be going berserk as hundreds of thousands of parents breathe a collective sigh of relief. Schools have gone back. The natural order of things is restored. We are at last able to hand our children over to someone else who will educate and amuse them during the working day.
We will have the hours between 9:15am and 3:15pm entirely undisturbed. Rather than prep, cook, and wash up three family meals a day — or sometimes more if one of your brood is fussy or vegetarian — we will once again be able to get away with a lunchtime cheese sandwich. We will be replying to urgent emails in silence and on a proper keyboard; not by jabbing crossly at a mobile phone in between shouting at our children that, no, fifty-six take away eighteen is not sixty frigging four. And when, at nine or half nine of an evening the children are finally pacified, we will be settling down with a beer to watch WandaVision rather than angrily starting our working day.
It has become a cliché to say that homeschooling has given parents new respect for teachers. But it’s the truth. Since schools shut, my wife has been squirrelled away in what was once my home office, working full-time, and I’ve been homeschooling a seven-year-old, a nine-year-old and an 11-year-old. I’m fit to break. Children are a giant pain in the teeth. Imagine trying to command the attention of 30 of these creatures at once, all day every day, and educate them to boot.
Yes, of course lockdown has brought unexpected bonuses. We eat together around the same table every day. We are — makes pious face — closer as a family. We have shared a staggering number of beany curries (vegetarian 11-year-old) and vegetable stir-fries. We have baked together, gardened together and explored the Marvel Cinematic Universe together. We have treated Joe Wicks as a household God. And we have trudged, day after day as the sun grew low in the winter sky, to play listlessly on the swings at the park near our house — noticing how, as the weeks have passed, the discs of ice in the churned mud have given way to the faint warmth of spring.
I’ve been more aware of my children’s progress at school than I ever would normally be. I can tell you, for instance, that my seven-year-old can’t punctuate for toffee; or, at least, that he knows where capital letters and full stops need to be but that he absolutely can’t be arsed to use them. That he’s capable of spelling the word “which” wrongly two different ways in two consecutive paragraphs. And that at least once a day, usually when his blood sugar is on the low side, he will throw a violent tantrum, declare that he’s quitting home school and have to be physically dissuaded from sending his teachers disrespectful private messages on Google Classroom.
I know that, left unsupervised for more than three minutes, the boys will start looking up superhero Lego sets on the internet, exchanging scholarly information about Minecraft or exploring YouTube’s unimaginable wealth of videos of fart noises. And I also know that, when the mood takes them and their powers of concentration come on stream, they are capable of wonders. We have built Tudor houses out of cereal packets, designed supervillains, made Arcimboldo collages out of old editions of The Week Junior, written long illustrated stories, and wept at the WiFi as we try for the fifth time to upload a piece of work that needs turning in. That yellow exercise book, years from now, will be a treasure-house of memories.
Look, I don’t like to moan (that’s a lie: I love to moan; moaning is the only thing that keeps me going). I’m aware that I’m one of the lucky ones. We can afford lockdown. I have a job that can be done, just about, in discontinuous bursts at random times of day. I have (relatively) biddable children. I am not struggling with bereavement, single parenthood, sudden joblessness, a child with special education needs, marital breakdown or any of the other issues that have made homeschooling, for many parents, more than a series of affectionate jokes.
But there’s something serious here about what comes after. What will it mean for the generation that will have had their education disrupted for nearly a year and a half? I’ve done my best — but I know that even with all their advantages, my kids aren’t as far ahead as they would have been had a professional been in charge. What of those with a parent unable to dedicate even the attention I have, struggling to feed their children properly or unable to access home learning?
We rejoice, as adults, at the return to school — as will most of our children. But the effects of this disruption will be felt for many years to come. It will be a little demographic ripple, another slight widening of the inequality gap — and like all ripples it will likely grow steadily wider as it travels forwards from the source. What, too, will it mean psychologically? Children are not just little bundles of economic potential to be groomed as efficiently as possible for deployment on the job market when they turn into adults.
Those children without siblings, or whose relationship with their siblings is uneasy: how have they coped without seeing their friends? Where do they get the affirmation of their individuality, the sense that they fit into a diverse patchwork of social hierarchies, when the only social hierarchy they have known since last spring has been the one in the four walls of their home? A year, when you’re under ten, is a hugely long time.
Even in my own home, where we all get along, it worries me. It haunts me that my daughter — 11 going on 15 — spends all day by herself, working away at her Zoom classrooms (if that is what she’s doing: a lot of those open tabs seem to be Depop and Billie Eilish videos). She sees a local friend, perhaps, once a week for an hour’s walk. Her brothers play constantly with each other but she’s isolated, too old or proud to join in their childish play. “I’m fine,” she says. But is she?
Is it coincidence that for weeks now my seven-year-old and my 11-year-old have refused to sleep through the night? That they appear at our bedroom door, infallibly, between one and three in the morning, complaining that they’re scared — and won’t go back to sleep until they’re in our bed and one of the adults is rehoused in a child’s bed? Perhaps it is. In the scheme of things, it’s no biggie. But I think that a little extra anxiety, a little extra loneliness, a little extra sense of disconnection from the world now comes as standard in households everywhere.
Beneath the laughs, beneath the showy competitive moaning and the great yelps of relief on Friday night Zoom drinks, then, there’s a real breath of sadness. Many of our children will barely remember this Covid year — but it’ll be with them, one way and another, for the rest of their lives.