The silence of a million muffled screams

We must understand what the most vulnerable have gone through if we are to rise to the challenge of supporting them after lockdown

CEO, Woodland Academy Trust

Knowing what impact the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting lockdown has truly had on those who are socially, economically or emotionally vulnerable is impossible to quantify at this point. There are lots of numbers, chunks of data, analysis of responses that all contribute to a lot of noise but very little to a sense of understanding.

So what has the impact been on those who had the least before all of this started? Those who had been swept under the carpet by society before, and whose plight has found sharper focus now we examine the fragilities and fissures within our country? Truthfully, there is no such thing as a lockdown experience. This pandemic was once described as “the great leveller”; the fantasy of that position and the idea that privilege has no part to play has been proved manifestly false as time and statistics have crept forward.

Within our country as a whole, you can almost hear the million tiny screams emanating from children and families as their invisible back-pack of feelings is filled with fear, anxiety, doubt, absence and, in some cases, abuse. Our children will not all be returning to schools with the memories of rainbows drawn and strolls taken; many will be returning with scars that need to be first revealed, and then healed.

Mary, not her real name, is one of our parents. She is a single parent and has four children, three of whom are at school age. Mary has no recourse to public funding and has found it difficult at the best of times to make ends meet; relying on the support and generosity of local charities and for her own determination and resilience. What little Mary and the children had disappeared very quickly when the lockdown came into effect. We have supported as best we can with food parcels, vouchers, calls and signposting to other community support groups, but it never feels like enough. Mary is most worried about what happens when we return and the children will no longer be entitled to Free School Meals. As she so eloquently put it, she has never had much at all; now she has nothing.

Robert, also not his real name, is new to these circumstances. He admits that he may have been a bit judgmental about people who were on benefits or needed wider support before. His eyes are now open. He lost his job in construction the first week of Lockdown and now finds himself in the Universal Credit system. He can’t yet access the interim payments and is struggling to know how to get all the paperwork completed. He is also worried that if this isn’t resolved soon, then his family will default on their rent. His wife has been in hospital for the last three weeks; not critical but deeply unwell. Robert has had no other support as all of the grandparents, who normally do a lot with the children, are all under shielding. He has never felt so alone and so helpless.

Lastly, my Mum is under shielding due to her underlying health issues. I haven’t been able to spend time with her for two months now and each day my heart breaks. You see for me, my mum is both of my parents and always has been. She sacrificed so much to give my brother and I the opportunities we had and one of those sacrifices was her own health. As she sits, alone, waiting for a day when we can be reunited, it is the extras that I am able to give her that make it just a little bit more bearable. She said the other day, had this been 30 years ago- when she was on her own, bringing us up with no money in her purse- she has no idea how we would have got through it.

We have lost pupils, staff and valued members of our community throughout this. We have joined on zoom funerals to offer condolences and respect in circumstances that are heart-breaking at the best of times and now devastate to the core. The grief that permeates every conversation is now tangible; acknowledged but a long way from being accepted. The collective shock of our country at the last few months is resonating the most in those communities which have always had the least.

If this is far removed from your own lockdown experience then there is no need at all to feel any sense of guilt; but do feel and understand the privilege. Take that, shape it into a burning desire to see all children and families benefit from the same and when we do return, keep those millions of unheard screams within your minds; you may be the only person who can help to bring a sense of peace.

As an optimist, I am encouraged by the knowledge that those of us in education have always risen to whatever challenges have come our way, and have always done what it takes to help our pupils. We may be called now as public servants to help with the challenge of a lifetime, but it is a call that we have all been built to face head on.

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