Back to school: 5 impacts of COVID-19 on school children in 2020-21

Without a doubt, the COVID-19 pandemic has created a period of huge disruption and uncertainty for children. School closures and other measures in response to the pandemic have already caused damage; beyond falling behind in their school work, interruption to children’s education has negative consequences for their social lives and emotional wellbeing, for which the long-term effects are yet unknown. It is vital that the children worst affected in this period are identified and supported. To pre-empt the impending impacts, No Isolation commissioned a research report entitled ‘The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and other health concerns on school attendance in the UK in the 2020-21 school year’.

From soaring school absence, to growing disparities between the rich and poor and the accompanying mental health challenges faced by young people, this report brings together evidence from government guidelines, school statistics, parent survey data and research into the impact of school absence to chart the impact of the pandemic on school children. There are some limitations to this study, with 1,005 parents and carers surveyed, answering on behalf of 1,477 children, and we are likely to see shifts in policy and public opinion. Taking that into account, here are five main takeaways.

School attendance will be down

Parents and carers were asked whether they planned to send their children to school in September if government guidelines allowed. The results indicated that at least 6% would not. This means that out of a UK school population 8,967,589 aged 5-16 it would mean a drastically high number - estimated at 540,000 - of children would be isolated from their peers.

Without adequate provisions for inclusion, there is a risk that a large group of children will continue to experience disruption to their education and social experiences in 2020/2021.

Perceptions of going back to school contradict government guidance.

The primary reasons given by parents and carers for choosing non-attendance in the survey were their concerns over the transmission of COVID-19. The most common reason given in the survey was the risk of a healthy child contracting coronavirus and becoming ill, and the second-most common reason was the risk of a household member catching coronavirus from the child. Despite government guidance, which at the time of writing is that most children should return to school, there are lingering negative perceptions and concerns about going back to school in the autumn.

Children with a health condition are the worst affected.

Coronavirus is dangerous to a group of children who would usually attend school.

57% of children whose condition would not usually stand in the way of them being safely present in the classroom are now shielding, and so will be forced to miss school.

Of the children who were recorded to have a serious medical condition or illness that caused them to miss school in the past, 10% were not likely to attend school in September.

For children who are already suffering from a more challenging start in life there must be provisions to ease this injustice.

Remote working widens the divide between rich and poor children.

The report showed that students from higher socio-economic groups were significantly more likely than those from lower socio-economic groups to have access to learning materials from their school and to remote exercises with classmates.

Further to this, children from wealthier families are more likely to return to school in person, and are the ones who generally live in larger homes and gardens. The data shows with high confidence that a larger percentage of children from higher socio-economic groups plan to attend school in September than those from lower socio-economic groups. So, children who reside in big, detached properties may choose to return to the classroom in September while children living in more cramped environments stay at home.

Mental health is suffering.

Studies have shown the extent of negative consequences that social isolation has on children’s mental health when they miss out on school due to illness; their confidence is often damaged, friendship groups advance without them and it can be difficult for them to reintegrate, with some losing friendships altogether. Research shows a direct correlation between loneliness and mental health, such as depressive disorders.

Now, measures in place because of COVID-19 are exacerbating school absence and the mental health crisis. 76% of parents and carers who responded to the survey are worried that their children are lonely some of the time, often, or all of the time owing to the pandemic. Furthermore, mental health challenges that have emerged or worsened during the pandemic were a reason for non-attendance for 2% of all children in the sample. This represents a substantial number of children at the national level, and a significant increase from pre-pandemic absence rates.

As highlighted in The Invisible Children report, there is a lack of existing data on socially isolated school children. If the numbers are set to increase, as this recent report predicts, there is an urgent need to overhaul how we understand loneliness, identify those in need and introduce preventative measures.

Download the full report.