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This chapter explores how parents navigated the difficult return to school in September 2020, following a long period of home learning. It sets out the punitive costs of school (especially uniform costs). It shows how the return of schooling brought a modicum of adult freedom - but at the cost of children re-entering a major site of COVID risk and infection. As the autumn term drew on, this chapter describes how parents found their way through unclear regulations and unpredictable ‘burst bubbles,’ accompanied by swift returns to home schooling (often at significant personal and financial cost). As children returned to school, old inequalities also reappeared: inequalities in educational opportunities had been exacerbated over the homeschooled months, with children with additional needs disproportionately affected. Parents worried for the future, too - concerned that missed schooling could leave their children as a ‘lost generation.’

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This chapter explores families’ experiences of Christmas 2020. Family accounts highlight the perennial difficulties of Christmas - and of other big occasions - when budgets already have nothing to spare. However, Christmas 2020 arrived at the end of a run of additional costs triggered by lockdown, and so any and all savings (and most conventional means of managing or spreading the cost) were either gone, or no longer viable. For families with younger children, the pressure was more acute - could Santa come? How would he navigate lockdown? How could he afford Christmas 2020 at all? For families with older children (and older relatives) the challenges centred on togetherness - as new ‘tier 4’ conditions were introduced in early December preventing any contact between households, how could they get through Christmas in isolation and without seeing any of their loved ones? Some parents somehome found their way to a joyful, festive day. Other families suffered - finding pain in the preparation, and misery in the big day.

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The Covid Realities project has been working alongside parents and carers since June 2020 to understand the experiences of and challenges faced by families living on a low income during the pandemic. In this chapter, we will explore how through diary entries, discussion groups, and engaging with online video questions, parents and carers have shared experiences and discussed recommendations for policy change. In order to truly build back better, we emphasise how those in power need to listen to and engage with the expertise that comes from – and can only come from – lived experience. Who is included and who is excluded from policy discussions happening now will have a lasting impact on the world that emerges from the pandemic.

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This article reports on the Child Poverty Action Group Early Warning System (EWS), a database of case studies representing social security issues reported directly by frontline benefits advice workers and benefit claimants. It outlines what data from the EWS can tell us about how the social security system is functioning and how it has responded during the pandemic. It further details how insights from the EWS can be used by researchers and policymakers seeking to understand the role of social security in supporting families living on a low income and in advocating for short- and longer-term policy change.

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Life on a Low Income during COVID-19

Money was already tight for UK families living on a low income before the COVID-19 pandemic, but national lockdowns made life much harder.

Telling the stories of these families, this book exposes the ways that pre-existing inequalities, insecurities and hardships were amplified during the pandemic for families who were already in poverty before COVID-19, as well as those pushed into poverty by the economic fallout it created.

Drawing on the Covid Realities research programme, and developed in partnership with parents and carers, it explores experiences of home-schooling, social security receipt and government, community and charitable support. This book sets out all that is wrong with the status quo, while also offering a powerful agenda for change.

Also see ‘COVID-19 Collaborations: Researching Poverty and Low-Income Family Life during the Pandemic’ (Open Access) to find out more about the challenges of carrying out research during COVID-19.

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