Parents say they would risk fine or homeschool if forced to send children back to classrooms

As schools in England prepare to reopen in the coming weeks, parents tell The Independent they would rather risk fines or start homeschooling than send their children back.

One mother says she would take her two sons out the school system if she faces fines for keeping them at home.

Another parent, whose daughter has several medical conditions, says a fine is “better than being in hospital with a sick child”.

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Schools in England are due to start reopening from next week, after having stayed shut for some year groups since March due to coronavirus.

The schools minister said earlier this week fines could be used as a “last resort” for parents who refuse to send their children back.

Boris Johnson, the prime minister, has urged parents to send their schoolchildren back in September – when the government has said it expects the whole school population to return.

“My boys are not due back until 7 September, but we have decided not to send them,” Kerrie Stanford, from Suffolk, tells The Independent.

She says they cannot take risk her two sons – aged 7 and 9 – catching coronavirus and passing it onto her husband, a self-employed gardener who is the family’s breadwinner.

“I gave up my work straight away in March when the children were off school to take care of them, but if he is off as well as me, we’ll have zero income then,” she says.

Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, warned in June parents could risk fines for non-attendance, unless they had a “good reason”.

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Councils can fine each parent £60 under a school attendance order – a penalty which rises to £120 if it is not paid within 21 days.

If there is a risk of fines, Ms Stanford says: “We will deregister them from the school system and home educate until we think it is safe.”

Clare Barkham also plans on keeping her daughter at home. When her 8-year-old has had viral conditions in the past, it has caused a flare-up of a chronic health condition.

She goes to a mainstream school with large class sizes, and Ms Barkham says she is not confident enough her child would be protected at school.

“A fine is £120,” the nurse from the West Midlands tells The Independent. ”It is better than being in hospital with a sick child.”

Dr Susy Giullari, who has two sons in Bristol, says if the number of local coronavirus cases escalate, she would also not send her youngest child – an 11-year-old who has faced complications from respiratory diseases – to school, despite the risk of being issued a fine.

She says she feels she can send him back now given Bristol’s situation, but will “still be worried about it”.

Dr Giullari, like Ms Stanford and Ms Barkham, has joined a Facebook group called Boycott Return to Unsafe Schools.

Schools have been urged to put in place certain measures to protect students and staff from coronavirus, which forced schools to close for all but vulnerable children and those of key workers in March.

The government changed its advice over face coverings in schools on Tuesday, meaning headteachers across England have the power to make face masks compulsory in communal areas, and obliging them in certain situations for secondary schools in local lockdown areas.

Guidance from the Department for Education also advises schools to keep students in groups – or “bubbles” – and to consider staggered break times to limit mixing.

Rebecca Saunders, a mother from Essex, says she expects school to feel quite “regimented” now with all the new rules.

However, she says she is “excited” for her son – who is going into year 3 – and daughter – who is starting school – to step foot in a classroom, after six months of looking after them at home.

“Especially my son,” she adds. “Being at home without any contact with friends has really had an impact on him.”

However, she says she is still a little nervous about them going back, even though she trusts the school will look after them. “Nothing is going to be the same,” she says.

Similarly, Hester Grainger, who has two children aged 8 and 10, tells The Independent she also had “mixed feelings” about the school return.

“I feel they need to go back because I think it’s really important. I think it’s been an insanely long time since March,” she says.

However, both her children are autistic, and she worries how they will cope in a school situation, especially given they have been quite nervous during the pandemic and generally “very rule-abiding”.

“I can imagine throughout the day, they’re going to become very anxious if someone gets too near them, or coughs near them,” the mother from Reading, whose website Perfectly Autistic offers support around autism, tells The Independent.

She says given the threat of fines, she feels she has to send her children back. “I think if we did have a choice, I probably would wait a few weeks,” she adds.

The Department for Education has been contacted for comment.

Government scientific advisers have backed the plan to bring children back to school from next week, with Professor Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer, saying evidence showed children would suffer more harm if they did not return then.

In addition, the country’s deputy chief medical officer has said the health risk to students from coronavirus is “exceptionally small”, and they are more at risk from a car accident on the way to school than from Covid-19.

Ahead of England’s planned school return, the first set of students in Northern Ireland stepped back in the classroom, while Scottish pupils also restarted school earlier this month.

Schools in Wales are expected to reopen from 1 September.

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