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The coronavirus ‘class divide’: Dad and mom judged for college return decisions

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As schools prepare to reopen on Monday to children in years one and six, some parents’ social media feeds have turned toxic. Kirstie Brewer talks to mothers feeling judged or shamed for their decision to send children back to school – or to keep them at home. Is this the new “class divide”?

Marsha’s WhatsApp group went pinging into overdrive as soon as it was announced that primary schools and nurseries would reopen for some children on 1 June.

There was outrage, relief, excitement, anxiety. Everyone seemed to have an opinion.

Marsha wrote that she’d be happy to send her son back to school. Then immediately another mum shared a news item about a teacher who’d tested positive for coronavirus.

“This is why I will be keeping Rosie safe at home with me – I’m not putting her life at risk,” she wrote.

A few other parents then sent thumbs-up and shocked-face emojis to show their approval of Rosie’s mum’s message.

“It felt very passive-aggressive,” says Marsha, who said she didn’t want her real name to be published because she couldn’t face “more drama”.

The WhatsApp group she belongs to is for parents with a child in year one at a school in the Bristol area and is normally a source of useful information. But since the pandemic hit, it’s become toxic, she says.

“People have been posting lots of screengrabs from Facebook which are full of misinformation about how the virus spreads and the risks to children,” she says.

“But if you dare to try to correct anything or put things into perspective you get shot down and it is implied you are a bad parent.

“I’m trying to hold down a full-time job while also homeschooling two children – I find being judged by other parents on top of that very hard to deal with.”

Sophia, 25, had a similar experience when she commented on a Facebook group for single mums that her five-year-old daughter would be returning to preschool.

She was branded “selfish” by another mum – and then she watched as that damning verdict was endorsed by “likes” from other members of the group.

Normally this would be a very positive, empowering community says Sophia, who works full-time as a charity consultant, so it’s a sign of how much times have changed.

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“It showed me how much the lockdown is getting to people,” she says.

“It feels as if the worst assumptions are being made about someone’s reasons for sending their child back to school or nursery.”

Sophia’s daughter has special educational needs and for weeks now she hasn’t had access to her usual speech therapy.

“She learns a lot by being with other children so being at preschool is the next best thing for her,” she explains.

“I could have a PhD in children’s education and it would still be better for her to be around other children. There is no substitute for that.”

Parents who have decided to keep their children at home haven’t escaped the crosshairs either.

Harriet Shearsmith, founder of parenting website Toby & Roo, has an Instagram following of 116,000 and is one of the few “mummy bloggers” to have publicly stated her position on this divisive issue. She won’t be sending her children back when the schools reopen in June, but when she explained this decision she was careful to add the caveat that she wasn’t criticising other parents.

“If you fall into the group of people who are choosing differently to me or you simply don’t have a choice, this isn’t a judgement of you or a dismissal of your situation,” she wrote.

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Harriet Shearsmith

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Harriet Shearsmith says each parent is the best judge of what is right for their child

Some nonetheless responded witheringly that Harriet obviously didn’t care much about her children’s education – but as an experienced blogger she is accustomed to dealing with it.

“I’ve had comments, you know, ‘You’re going to be damaging your children,’ or, ‘You’re just not very intelligent and a terrible mother.’ That kind of thing is said, but I largely just ignore it,” she says.

“Lockdown has made us all much quicker to lose our tempers. We are much more frayed and we are all in very stressful positions, regardless of what those positions might be.”

Fellow blogger Alison Perry says she has also noticed the ground shifting.

“It feels like all the social ‘rules’ have changed,” she says. “Everyone feels very differently about homeschooling and screen time and even just interpreting the government guidelines. I’m usually a very outspoken person but have found myself biting my tongue, because whatever I say, there will be someone there telling me I’m wrong or selfish.”

Liz, who lives near Cambridge, points to another possible explanation – people now have more time to spend on social media, she says, so any backlash gets amplified.

Like Marsha and Sophia, she is planning on sending one of her children back to school on Monday.

“It’s really difficult to know what the right decision is but we think that the benefits of our son going back to school outweigh the risk of him becoming ill,” she says.

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She has been hurt by judgemental comments from other parents on her Facebook group, some of whom she’s known for several years.

“Apparently those of us who are willing to send our children back to school when they reopen are sending them back to be ‘guinea pigs’ or ‘canaries’, to see if cases are going to rise again,” she says.

“I said I found it offensive. That does imply that anyone who is happy to send their child back to school is throwing them to the wolves, so to speak, whereas actually we just want some normality for our children, and, you know, education and socialisation.”

When she made this point in response to a critic on Facebook she says she was accused of “bullying”.

The issue seems to have caused a deep divide, she notes with regret. She has now minimised her time on social media and advises other parents in her position to do the same.

The parents on Marsha’s group who are sending their children to school have taken a different approach – they have started avoiding the main group chat and talking among themselves instead.

Mumsnet founder and CEO Justine Roberts:

A few parents on Mumsnet who’ve made the decision to send their child back to school say they’ve felt bruised by the negative responses of family or friends, which seem to be driven by worries about the infection risk.

Many people are highly dubious that the youngest children can really be prevented from sharing bugs and carrying them out into the community, and lots of people have picked up on teachers’ concerns about whether schools have had enough time to prepare a really safe environment.

It seems likely that people’s responses are driven by understandable fear and uncertainty, but if you’re a parent run ragged by nine weeks of homeschooling while attempting to hold down a job, other people’s judgement is likely to be the last thing you need.

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