Findings of the research suggest that school closures result in widening health inequalities and as schools return, measures will need to be in place to re-address the widened gap in physical health and wellbeing.
The research was led by Swansea University’s Dr Michaela James and the HAPPEN Network. HAPPEN is part of the National Centre for Population Health and Wellbeing Research (NCPHWR) funded by Health and Care Research Wales. NCPHWR is a centre of excellence within Population Data Science. The initiative brings together a world-class team of researchers, statisticians and data analysts from Swansea, Cardiff, and Bangor Universities alongside Public Health Wales to understand, evaluate and inform population health Improvements.
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, by mid-March 2020, 138 countries had implemented national school closures to reduce the number of social contacts between pupils, therefore interrupting the transmission of COVID-19 as part of pandemic plans. UNESCO warned that the global scale and speed of the educational disruption would be unparalleled.
HAPPEN researchers collected data about children’s wellbeing during school closures between April and June 2020, using the ‘HAPPEN At Home’ survey. Participating HAPPEN Network primary schools in Wales were encouraged to invite parents and guardians to facilitate children taking part in the survey from home. Researchers then compared this information with similar data for the same period from 2019 and 2018.
As an indicator for deprivation, the team used SAIL Databank to anonymously identify those children receiving free school meals once the survey responses had been securely uploaded to SAIL using an Anonymous Linkage Field (ALF). The researchers were then able to link across other demographic data held in SAIL to build a complete picture of health and wellbeing.
Of the 1000+ eight to 11-year olds surveyed, some children reported increased physical activity levels, sleep time and happiness when compared to previous years. But the most disadvantaged children; those receiving free school meals, were impacted most negatively by the school closures, the survey results suggest.
The children receiving free school meals reported less physical activity levels and more takeaway consumption than their more affluent counterparts. These children also reported generally eating less fruits and vegetables and achieved a lower level of educational self-assessment compared with previous years.
Lead researcher, Dr Michaela James, commented,
“This research illustrates the important role that schools play in reducing wellbeing inequalities amongst children. It’s vital to recognise that school closures and the lack of a structured school environment as a result, detrimentally impacts those most disadvantaged.”
It’s hoped that this research will provide policymakers and educational leaders with evidence that can inform future decision-making and ensure that adequate levels of support are given to those who need it most as schools welcome back their pupils.
The research was reported by the BBC on 26th August 2021 – https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-58332312
The full research pre-print publication (as yet not peer-reviewed) can be found here – https://www.medrxiv.org/content/10.1101/2021.02.04.21251155v1