Vulnerable family face legal action after keeping child home over COVID concerns

Marston Vale School
Marston Vale School. Image: Marston Vale School/Facebook

A family have been threatened with legal action for continuing to home-school their son, despite being told catching coronavirus (COVID-19) could put at least one of their family members at serious risk.

Michael and Heidi Packwood, in nearby Marston Moretaine, have been following government advice and home-schooling their three children during the pandemic.

The family have a range of disabilities which the government says puts some of them at high risk and in the ‘extremely vulnerable’ category.

While the NHS says coronavirus can make anyone seriously ill for those who are ‘extremely vulnerable’, the risk is higher.

Their son, suffers from Tourette’s, ADHD, OCD and anxiety. He goes to Marston Vale Middle School in Bedford Borough, but is not at high-risk so has been told he has to return to class.

However, his mum Heidi suffers from chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia, conversion disorder with seizures, reactive hyperglycaemia as well as asthma and other health conditions.

Their 16-year-old daughter is autistic and suffers from rolandic epilepsy, hemiplegic migraines, and a range of other impairments.

Dad, Michael (49), has been Heidi’s full-time carer since 2009.

They are concerned that if their son returns to school, before they are vaccinated fully, he will put others in the family at risk.

‘Extremely vulnerable’

The Department of Education (DfE) said that all children must return to school on 8 March.

However, a government letter dated 17 February 2021 told Heidi she was ‘extremely vulnerable’ and advised her ‘to shield and stay at home as much as possible until 31 March’.

People in this category have been advised to continue with shielding measures, even if they had received both vaccinations.

Due to vaccine delays and the government lengthening time between doses, the Packwoods did not receive their second jab until 12 May.

This meant they will not be fully protected until 2 June, three weeks later.

This clashes with half term (Friday 28 May to Monday 7 June), meaning their son, a Year 6 pupil at Marston Vale Middle School, could not return until after the holiday.

Heidi said: “If everything had been normal at the very beginning, three weeks later we would have had our second one [vaccine], he’d have been back to school.’’

Michael said: “We’ve just been doing what we think has been safe for us.’’

Mr and Mrs Packwood say the school had been supportive and understanding but that this changed over Easter when Harry’s online learning access and free school meals were cut without warning.

Legal Action

Then on 12 May they were left frightened and disturbed by a letter from Bedford Borough Council warning them of possible legal action.

The letter, seen by the Bedford Independent, also said a parenting order could be made if there was not ‘considerable improvement’ in their son’s school attendance.

The Packwoods say his attendance was always good prior to pandemic home-schooling.

They have kept to a strict 9 am to 3:30 pm home-schooling timetable and that “school have said ‘he seems to be making really good progress at home.’’’

What the school says

Marston Vale Middle School is part of The Chiltern Learning Trust. Estelle Jennings, Headteacher sent this statement to the Bedford Independent.

“The health and well-being of our students and staff remain our foremost priority and we have worked very hard as a team to ensure Marston Vale Middle School is a safe learning environment in line with the Government guidelines on the return of face-to-face teaching.

“We fully understand that for many families there is a nervousness about the return to school.

“We have been proactive in inviting discussion on personal circumstances, anxieties and concerns and on the comprehensive safety measures we have in school, however, we have to work with the Government guidelines.

“We have been in close communication with families alongside Bedford Borough Council where necessary, to discuss the specific concerns and circumstances and to explore how we can best support pupils returning to school.”

The rapid growth in the Indian variant across Bedfordshire added to the family’s concerns, particularly as their son falls into the most ‘at risk’ category of 11–22-year-olds.

Year 6 pupils are not required to wear masks and are not regularly tested.

The Packwoods say the school told them if they send their son back and he gets symptoms, they will put work online for him because he would be isolating.

But Heidi added that she’s concerned what might happen if he comes home with the virus and it affects them fatally.

“Who takes the brunt of that? Do we put that on the school? We’re weighing up a lifetime without somebody in the family or a few extra weeks of home-schooling him,” she said.

The Packwoods agree the best place for their son is at school but say they must weigh up the risks to their family.

“If somebody in our family got it, it’d be fatal,” said Heidi and Michael agrees.

“My wife has no immune system,” he said. “[Our son] would never recover from the loss of a family member under those circumstances…we’re not prepared to gamble.”

He added: ‘’Since the beginning, we’ve taken extra precautions with everything. We’ve disinfected our feet when we’ve come home. We’ve cleaned all the food before it gets put away.

“We’ve done everything, and the way we saw it was there’s no point in sending him back to school when there’s no masks.

“There’s nothing really apart from a bit of sanitiser, three weeks before we’re fully protected, it just didn’t make sense to us [to send him back to school yet] so that’s the reason why we’ve been doing what we’ve been doing.’’

We contacted Bedford Borough Council several times but they declined to comment.