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Parental warning: the summer holidays just got a whole lot longer | Gaby Hinsliff | Opinion

School’s out. Two words that usually spell freedom, the untrammelled joy of summer stretching out ahead, but not this time. This time, they mean the walls are finally closing in.Children will come home at the end of this week, and nobody knows when they will be returning to class. Having said that closing schools would be the last resort, the government has been overtaken once again by the sheer pace of this infection; hours after it was announced that Scottish and Welsh schools would be closing at the end of the week, the education secretary, Gavin Williamson, confirmed that England would be following suit. But it was arguably only ever a matter of time, given the rate at which teachers are falling sick or staying away because they’re pregnant.

So now the economy really is sailing into uncharted waters, as working parents retreat home. A skeleton service will stay open for the children of key workers, such as doctors and delivery drivers, but some will still face agonising dilemmas over where they’re needed most. Families won’t dare call on help from grandparents – the last thing anyone wants to do is rope in the people most vulnerable to the virus –and none of us yet knows how the playground favours that normally swing into action when you’re stuck might work. What is the etiquette for having someone else’s kids over to play when you don’t know who might be infected? We’ll be making the rules up as we go along.

But it’s families already on the brink for whom things look really bleak, which is why Williamson talked of keeping places open for vulnerable children and providing vouchers for those on free school meals. Last week, I happened to be visiting a school serving one of the most deprived estates in the country; it stays open longer than its neighbours, the head told me, because some of her pupils are safer in class than at home. Many teachers will know of kids who return from the summer holidays withdrawn and hiding bruises. Food bank use soars in the holidays when families can’t rely on free school meals (if your local food bank is still open, now might be the time to donate) and for teenagers in neighbourhoods where knife crime is rife we are entering dangerous times. Parents whose most pressing worry is not relying too heavily on the Xbox as a babysitter should probably thank our lucky stars.

But even if plans for teachers to carry on teaching over Skype work out, then a long lockdown will test parenting skills to the limit. Is it safe to go to the swings, and if not how do you tire out a stir-crazy small person? What about rebellious teens, craving their mates’ company and desperate to sneak out? When schools closed in Japan, the public health benefits were promptly undermined by hordes of bored kids congregating on street corners. Hardly ideal, yet they’re not going to want to sit in their bedrooms for hours on end, revising for exams that have just receded into the distant future.

But perhaps the biggest challenge for children, once the novelty of hanging out in their pyjamas when they should be in double maths wears off, is that this puts an end to normality. Once the school gates close and the daily routine dissolves, we will no longer be able to pretend that nothing much is happening. We no longer have the option of packing them cheerfully off on the school bus, and switching on the news only after they’ve gone. Parents must now master the delicate skills not only of fielding work calls while fingerpainting, but of hiding our own fear. It’s going to be a very long summer.

Gaby Hinsliff is a Guardian columnist

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