Northern Ireland news

Split shifts, screen time and walking in the rain: Parents fear over second schools lockdown

A day out at Divis and Black Mountain in the snow Picture by Hugh Russell.

STRINGENT restrictions on indoor and outdoor activities have seen families swarm beauty spots for exercise and escape, but with extended school closures and uncertainty over reopening keeping children occupied is only the start of worries for parents. Bimpe Archer reports.

"There is no such things as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing," the Department of Education exhorts via Sir Ranulph Fiennes on its Play Matters site.

It is a maxim that parents have taken to heart over the Christmas break, with hordes of people tramping through parks and towpaths across Northern Ireland.

Indeed parts of the Lagan Towpath have been so crowded that scenes have resembled pre-Covid Black Friday morning in a shopping mall.

As coronavirus cases continue to soar, current restrictions have seen theatres, cinemas, amusement arcades, bowling alleys, skating rinks, inflatable parks, go-karting venues, soft play centres and indoor museums close, along with "outdoor visitor attractions (including) drive-in events".

Outdoor parks, play areas, the grounds of National Trust properties and other stately homes, historic homes and castles are permitted to remain open.

Sarah O'Callaghan, from Co Down, was on her way to Castle Ward with her husband, three children and dog Nero yesterday, a change of scene from her nearby Hillsborough Park which has been "full of people" during the latest lockdown.

"We'd already booked the tickets so we thought we may as well go. We get out every day to get everyone some fresh air and to break the monotony up a bit, but teenagers aren't that keen to go for a walk."

Twins Reuben and Amelia are in Year 10 and have seen their usual activities, a combination of hockey, Explorers (scouts) and horse riding, grind to a halt, while little brother Patrick, in P2 is missing Squirrels (scouts) rugby, hockey and swimming classes.

"Its so good for them to be doing sport, without it you have to force them out of the house. It's going to be a long month."

Louise, a mother-of-three who is a doctor in a hospital laboratory, hasn't ventured further than the nearby Lagan Towpath with her brood, where she has doubts about how strictly others have been adhering to the strick pre-New Year rules.

Until today, outdoor exercised should only be "with members of own household".

"There are a lot of `families' with two daddies, two mummies and lots of children the same age," she observed dryly.

"And a lot of grannies and grandas seem to live in the same house as their children and grandchildren."

She has yet to break the news to her eldest that they will not be going back to primary school for at least another week.

"It's going to be devastating. It's all been excitement and `counting sleeps' until school's back. Because of what happened last time and how long schools were off, there's just this desperation to be back and see friends."

Both women are concerned at the prospect of their children missing any more school.

"Patrick's first week back in P2 he learned more than was covered in three months at home," Sarah said.

"I'm scared at how much they're all going to miss out on. P1 and P2 is where they get all the basics, if they don't have those foundations what will that mean later on?"

The 43-year-old lawyer said last time round home learning simply wasn't "teaching" and hopes schools have learned from the shortcomings of the last remote learning trial.

"Year 10 is going to be off until the end of January with remote learning. The last time we'd just get an email through saying `Read pages 20-25 in the history book and answer the questions' or `Watch this YouTube video'.

"I think they were concentrating on the GCSE and A-Level classes, but Years 8 and 9 were left behind. There was no sign of teaching, just an email sent and that's it."

A recent study of over 500 parents found more than three-quarters would find it difficult to balance work and home learning if schools closed again.

Separate research by Pregnant Then Screwed, a group opposing discrimination faced by pregnant women and mothers, recorded 72 per cent of mothers forced to work fewer hours during school closures.

Louise said returning to the pattern of previous lockdown would be unsustainable.

"I work on-site, so I was having to do split-shifts, getting up before the children and going in for 6/7am, coming back at lunchtime to relieve my husband who had been trying to work at home, and then going back in after they were in bed and working until midnight.

"My eldest was trying to do work set on an app on a tiny iPad screen and often ended up using my phone. In the meantime, our middle child's behaviour was deteriorating and he was lashing out because he was frustrated and not getting the stimulation he needed and I was running around making lunch and snacks for everyone and trying to look after the baby.

"There was more screentime which isn't good for them and I just felt like I couldn't give them the attention they needed. I certainly couldn't come near to replicating what teachers could give them."

Sarah said the feeling of guilt was all-pervasive.

"I'm tense now just thinking about it. There were just constant interruptions. When I managed to get time to work I was worried that I wasn't doing enough with the children, when I was with the children I was worried that I wasn't doing enough work. I definitely did more hours, but there was still that anxiety that it wasn't enough.

"Meanwhile, the children are so isolated. They should be with their friends and peers and have face-to face teaching.

"It can't be good for their mental health to be missing out on that. They've already been closed for two weeks and it hasn't brought infection rates down.

"Since September they have been going to three different schools and nobody came home and had to self-isolate.

"Children are paying the price with their education for other relaxations, people packing into shops and large Christmas gatherings."


From building a den to making a musical instrument from jam jars there are plenty of ideas at

Find you nearest National Trust property:

Activities to keep children enterntained during lockdown:

Tips and advice for caring for children while working from home:

Covid-19 support resources:

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