How has the covid-19 pandemic impacted on children?

by Dr Caroline Hart, School of Education at the University of Sheffield

‘It’s important to remain hopeful and to create spaces for dialogue about how we not only help children to survive and recover from the Covid-19 pandemic but also how we engage them in meaningful dialogue, decision-making and action regarding their futures and those of generations to come.’

In England, the experience of the Covid-19 pandemic has created an opportunity for us to develop greater resilience, self-reliance and self-regulation. It’s also been an opportunity to engage with the local community in ways that might not otherwise have happened, like helping neighbours with shopping and having doorstep conversations.

For some children, the opportunity to have a break from school and to spend extended periods with their families has been enriching and enjoyable, a special time that has strengthened family bonds and relationships (Children’s Society, 2020). Some children have learned new skills, like cooking, gardening, outdoor activities and observing and enjoying nature.

But these opportunities haven’t been equal, with many children experiencing more negative effects than positive (Institute of Fiscal Studies, 2020). Sadly, many children in England live in environments where they do not feel safe and, during the height of the first wave of the pandemic, had very limited access to support services. Many children have witnessed their parents lose jobs or experience stresses related to the economic impacts of Covid-19, with far greater reliance on food banks and charity support than usual (Trussell Trust, 2020).

In my work in the School of Education, I often work with Nussbaum’s list of Central Human Capabilities. The list highlights ten capabilities she deems necessary for a ‘dignified human life’ (Nussbaum, 2000). Her list offers a useful starting point for considering some of the ways in which children’s capabilities may be impacted by the experience of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Life and Suffering loss

The capability for life is the first capability on Nussbaum’s list. While it’s less likely that children will die from Covid-19, it’s more likely that many will lose parents, grandparents or or members of their communities. Children are socially, emotionally and physically dependent on adults so by extension when their guardians’ capabilities are threatened, so are theirs.

Reduced nourishment

Children are more likely to experience reduced nourishment, a particular issue highlighted by children’s charities in England during the lockdown periods. With the growth of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Trussell Trust reported ‘an immediate and sustained surge in need’ for food banks, with 1.2 million food parcels given out between 1 April and 30 September 2020. That’s 2600 food parcels given to children every day of the first six months of the pandemic, and was described as ‘just the tip of the iceberg’ (Trussel Trust, 2020).

Experiencing violence

Attention has also been drawn to the vulnerability of many children to increased episodes of domestic violence and child abuse, and other forms of threat and exploitation. Even before the pandemic, the Children’s Society had highlighted concerns that the safeguarding system was ‘overstretched and overwhelmed’ and ‘unable to meet the growing safeguarding pressures’ with over 50,000 children subject to a child protection plan and around 400,000 individuals identified as ‘children in need’, requiring support to safeguard or promote their welfare (Children’s society et al., 2020:2).

During the first lockdown period, schools stayed open to ‘vulnerable children’ however it is reported that only around 15% of children in this group attended. There was a 700% rise in calls to the national Domestic Abuse helpline and with 800,000 children estimated to be living in a household with domestic abuse (Children’s society et al., 2020:2).

Caring responsibilities

Other areas of concern relate to young carers — children under the age of 18 with caring responsibilities at home — estimated at around 800,000 in England. Access to support was severely reduced during the lockdown period with increased responsibility, no respite during school hours and frequently additional health and financial worries. There have been four times the average annual calls to the National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children (around 4 million reports in April 2020).

Senses, imagination and thought

Children’s senses, imagination and thoughts have been impacted in a multitude of ways as their everyday lives and ways of being, individually and collectively, are turned on their heads. Many will be exposed to alarming news reports and death figures, constantly changing rules (wearing masks, school closures) and uncertainties about their education. This in turn may lead to their senses becoming ‘blighted by fear and anxiety’ (Nussbaum).

Affiliation and Feelings of isolation

Feeling a sense of affiliation with others (Nussbaum, 2020) is also limited with restrictions on the number of people an individual can meet with, opportunities to visit loved ones in hospitals and care homes and being able to travel away from home to maintain relationships with those living at a distance. Children have been instilled with physical restraint and avoidance of hugs, cuddles and handshakes, with unknown long term mental health consequences.

The Sutton Trust highlights that ‘the risk of isolated young children developing issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder, attachment problems or a sense of grief that could have fundamental and long-term effects’ (The Sutton Trust, 2020:2). Recreational activities have been limited or curtailed completely, especially team sports and those occurring in public places. Many children, as well as adults, may experience a loss of control over their environment.

School closures

One of the most widespread impacts of the pandemic on children in England relates to the closure of schools from March 2020 and into 2021. In May 2020, an estimated 1.27 billion children worldwide were out of school or childcare (UNESCO, 2020). Although schools were advised to stay open for ‘vulnerable’ children and the children of ‘key workers’, there is significant evidence showing that this has not been the case for many children in these categories.

Families have been effectively asked to ‘homeschool’ their children, although this is perhaps better described as ‘remote’ or ‘distant’ learning. For some children, the experience of learning at home has been stable and well supported, entailing a regular timetable delivered with live online lessons, and this was more often the case in the private education sector (The Sutton Trust 2020). However, for many other children, schoolwork has been set intermittently, with widely varying quality and little, erratic or no contact from school. There has been a stark divide between those children in families with good Internet access and with adequate devices to enable children to participate in online learning and those children with limited or lack of access to such facilities and unsurprisingly this division follows a social gradient with the more affluent having better access.

Looking ahead

It will take time to understand the full impact of the overall loss and differentiation in learning opportunities for children, but we do know that many have experienced additional stress and anxiety with many expressing a sense of abandonment and loss. Ritualistic milestones that support important psychological processes of transition were cancelled for many pupils — transition days, end of year exams, GCSEs, A Levels, school proms and leavers’ events, birthday celebrations and so on.

Organisations and individuals calling for action by the Government to address the welfare and well-being of children across all areas of society, highlight the need for adequate financial support, a coordinated and local approach and one that takes account of children’s own concerns and priorities.

Children’s voices have been leading the calls to protect our planet and they have a generational perspective that cannot be mimicked by adults. Whilst adults made, and continue to make rapid and far-reaching decisions about how we should lead our lives amidst a pandemic little attention has been paid to children’s views about how we should prioritise future child well-being goals and moreover goals related to the relationship of Covid-19 to the neglect of environmental, ecological and social challenges.

The Office of the Children’s Commissioner for England is a public body in England responsible for promoting and protecting the rights of children. In August 2020 the Children’s Commissioner, Anne Longfield, published a report called ‘Putting Children First in Future Lockdowns’, which stated that ‘children’s perspectives must be better reflected in scientific and public health advice. Any measures implemented must take into account children’s needs and circumstances where they differ to those of adults’ and…’education should be prioritised over other areas: first to open, last to close.’

It’s important to remain hopeful and to create spaces for dialogue about how we not only help children to survive and recover from the Covid-19 pandemic but also how we engage them in meaningful dialogue, decision-making and action regarding their futures and those of generations to come. What is clear is that significant social, health and economic inequalities pre-existed the pandemic and these have been dramatically intensified over the last six months with uneven and concerning effects on children.

References

Allen, K., Andrews, A., Preston, O. & Trend, L. (2020) Impact of COVID-19 on care and contact Experiences in the first COVID-19 lockdown on foster carers and young people in their care (accessed tactcare.org.uk January 14 2021).

Andrew, A., Cattan S., Costa-Dias, M., Farquharson, C., Kraftman, L., Krutikova, S., Phimister, A., & Sevilla, A. (2020) Family time use and home learning during the COVID-19 lockdown Report R178 Institute of Fiscal Studies (accessed January 14, 2021).

Children’s Society (2020) Life on Hold — Children’s Well-being and Covid-19 (accessed childrenssociety.org.uk, September 24, 2020).

Children’s Society et al. (2020) Recovery Plan — Safeguarding and Child Protection (Children’s Society).

Nussbaum, M.C. (2000) Women and Human development — The Capabilities Approach (New York Cambridge University Press).

Nussbaum, M.C. (2011) Creating Capabilities — The Human Development Approach (Cambridge Mass., Harvard University Press).

Trussell Trust (2020) Coronavirus response Impact Report (trusselltrust.org accessed January 14 2021).

Sutton Trust (2020) COVID-19 and Social Mobility Impact Brief #1: School Closures, April (accessed SuttonTrust.com September 24, 2020).

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