COVID-19: Where do we go from here?

In the penultimate episode of the Generation Pandemic podcast, we ask two important questions; where are we now in terms of the recovery of our children and young people, and what gaps in the evidence has the pandemic highlighted? Joining host Catherine McDonald are a selection of contributors from across the Generation Pandemic series. 



Catherine McDonald  0:04 

Hello, and welcome to Generation Pandemic, a podcast from the Interdisciplinary Child Wellbeing Network looking at the impact of the COVID-19 crisis on children in the UK and Ireland. I’m Catherine McDonald and in this penultimate episode of our series, I’ve spoken again to a selection of our series contributors, to ask them where they think we are now in terms of our recovery from the pandemic, and what further research we should be engaging in moving forward? Here’s Professor Susan Harkness, from the University of Bristol, and Professor Mary Murphy from the National University of Ireland Maynooth with their thoughts on where we are now.

Susan Harkness  0:43 

So I think as we come out of the pandemic, we really need to be keeping an eye on inequalities, and in particular the inequalities in children’s learning. So I think what we’re probably going to see as we get better and better data about how children are doing at school, but the broader sort of cognitive outcomes is going to be really important to understand how inequalities between children in terms of these in terms of their education are opening up or not. And I think in terms of policy, we will need to sort of step in if there’s evidence that there are particular groups. So I think, you know, clearly some groups, some schools, some areas that have been more affected by COVID, than others. And I think we need them to need to really sort of think seriously about how we try and reduce inequalities between schools, between pupils, between regions. And I think maybe the other thing we need to think about as well is, I think we’re gonna have to think about children’s mental health and how they’ve really been affected by the pandemic. And I think once again, I think we’ve got evidence that there are big negative mental health effects. We know that children in single parent families, mental health has been more negatively affected, and it was already a bit worse pre-pandemic. And in many ways, it’s not surprising because clearly, the pandemic has really adversely affected groups such as single parents, their employment has fallen more, it’s going to be much more of a struggle, in terms of homeschooling in terms of sort of surviving on a single income over the course of the pandemic. And all these stresses, I think, are going to show up in both in mother’s mental health, but also in their children’s mental health. And I think we need to be concerned about whether these effects kind of persist in the longer term. And we’ve seen data, for example, on the Children’s Commissioner talking about the increasing number of school absences, and the number of school refusals, I think we really need to be getting a handle on these children that are really, really a new and growing group are really going to be underperforming in terms of their education, I think that’s a really, you know, there’s a lot of very worrying trends for, for children and their well being and also differences inequalities between them. So not just between rich and poor, but between different types of schools and different areas, for example. So I think there’s a lot of a lot of things we need to be concerned about for the future.

Mary Murphy  3:00 

It’s very, very hard to tell, isn’t it? Because in a way, we’re still in the pandemic, and we’re still having to cope with various social protocols around it. But we’re also emerging into a new crisis in inflation, but also causing war in Ukraine, I think our policy system that our way of working has to be able to respond to an assumption that we are always going to be chasing our tail to some degree around crisis in the next couple of decades. But I do think that we begin with the impacts of what happened in the pandemic crisis begin to show for example, I’m here with our pet dog, who was the pandemic pet if you like, and is experiencing really genuinely high levels of anxiety, if left alone at all. And if you multiply that out, then to the degree to which families are readjusting to having been at home, as complete units, young children born into that situation, are now having to experience a return to work of parents, new institutionalised forms of care. And this is all difficult for families to manage and to cope with. If I look at my own experiences as an educator in third level, really genuine amongst maybe young people aged 19 to 23 really serious mental health stress and anxiety issues, as they cope with not only the how the second level education ended so abruptly, in terms of not being able to consolidate or even, you know, exit friendship groups, but then their incapacity to develop new networks and friendships and social lives. And that is having an impact that I don’t think we understand at all, in terms of their capacity to engage and attend their education. I think more broadly, then we have that issue of younger people returning to school and trying to negotiate expectations about education is now is this blended? Is it online? Is it back fully in person? And we’re still grappling with that. And we don’t really know what we’re doing as educators, I would suggest. I think that the other thing is that it was an assumption, I think, as the care needs became more and more evident during the pandemic, that a lot of the care were assumed to be very elastic in their capacity to stretch out and provide all these kinds of forms of care. And we don’t really know what the cost of that burden of care has been on women’s lives, as mothers, as sisters, as daughters. And we need to understand that because we need to factor that into the real cost of the pandemic, and understand what we can heap on people’s shoulders, as we’re now demanding. They take off that place in the productive economy again. So I think, you know, the sense to which we should have a better understanding now, but I don’t think we necessarily do of the real value of care that takes place in the informal unpaid economy, that became more obvious during the crisis, but were quickly putting it back in its box to some degree and that would worry me. So I think we do have evidence gaps around a number of things around the impact on mental health, the forms of education that might work for us, the reality of the care burden for women, particularly unpaid and informal care and trying to get a better sense of how much that impacts on the quality of lives of families and women. I think there’s a lot that we could talk about in that context.

Catherine McDonald  6:04 

Next, we hear from Professor Birgitta Rabe, from the Institute for Social and Economic Research, and Dr. Rod Hick from the University of Cardiff.

Birgitta Rabe  6:13 

Well, I suppose, you know, we are at a point in time where the restrictions have been lifted. Everything’s back to normal procedurally – children are going back to school. But there are still large scars remaining for children. Currently, people are sitting exams, young people are sitting exams, their A levels, and this cohort of children has never sat their GCSEs. Their last formal exams they’ve had was at the end of primary school. And I suspect there will be a lot of fallout from that. So there is not a sense that this is over. And I suppose children will carry that burden for quite some time with them. And our own research has shown that recovery is not instant for mental health problems. And there are many reports now especially how young children are affected by having been away from school for such a long time. So I wouldn’t say that we can be overly optimistic, although obviously, it’s great for the children to be able to be back at school.

Rod Hick  7:16 

Life itself, I would say we’re well on the way to returning to, you know, a good degree of normality. I mean, schools, our own colleges and universities, we’re able to see our families and friends, again, we’re able to travel again, so many of the aspects of life that were disrupted, most have resumed to, you know, some level of normality. And in many cases, actually, back to quite a good level of normality. But obviously, in terms of economy, things are more concerning in that we’re facing very rapidly into a cost of living crisis. So hence, the storm clouds are gathering once again. And it’s a real concern, partly because the economic impact of COVID, at least in terms of its potential impact on unemployment, in the longer term didn’t really materialise. That potential risk didn’t materialise, as we might have feared. But this new found concern about the cost of living crisis is very real. And I think there are real concerns about the extent to which an inflation shock, which is very much focused on energy prices at the moment sort of filters out into a more wide ranging inflation crisis. And we simply don’t know how long this cost of living crisis will go on for. There are both kind of optimistic and relatively pessimistic estimates, and maybe the risk and the concern there is that in the last, or in the financial crisis, rather, one of the dynamics we saw was that some government decisions didn’t always support families to the extent that they might have. That was one of the concerns, I think, emerging from that crisis. And I guess that’s the particular risk that families face into, you know, not only facing into the winter ahead, but into the next two, three years.

Catherine McDonald  9:02 

Finally, on the question of where we are in terms of our recovery from the pandemic, here’s Dr. Aisling Murray, Senior Research Officer on the Growing Up in Ireland study team, and Dr. Jim Kaufman from the COVID Realities project.

Aisling Murray  9:17 

I think we probably won’t be able to answer that, for Growing Up in Ireland until next year, but what we are doing at the moment is our younger cohort of young people who were 12, back when we surveyed them in 2020, in the middle of the pandemic, there are 13 going on 14 now. And we’re actually interviewing them again to see how they’re getting on. And we’re asking them about how they’ve settled back in school, their physical and emotional health. And we’re also asking their parents about the financial and household circumstances to see how that’s changed or also how I suppose it compares not just to the pandemic times, but also pre-pandemic when this group of children were aged nine. So it’s a work in progress for us at Ireland Catherine, Growing Up in Ireland, but do come back to us next year.

Jim Kaufman  10:05 

So where I’m speaking from, which is the UK, it feels very much in terms of the broader kind of public narrative, it can often feel very much like the pandemic is almost over. But it’s very clear in the work that we do on COVID Realities, talking to our participants, that the pandemic, and its effects are very much still with us. And they’re not over at all. So I think there’s that sense, we’re in a strange moment where there can be a bit of a mismatch between the bigger public narratives, political narratives, and the kind of experiences of people that have been affected by the pandemic, which lingers on and has sort of slower unfolding consequences so I think we’re in that kind of strange space.

Catherine McDonald  11:01 

A strange space, but with a degree of recovery underway. So what do our serious contributors feel we need to keep monitoring as we move forward? Where are the gaps in the evidence base? And what research questions do we need to ask? Here’s Professor Harkness and Professor Murphy.

Susan Harkness  11:17 

What will be the consequences of these gaps in employment over the course of the pandemic? So for example, mothers who’ve given up work, perhaps to do home schooling or reduce their working hours, what impact will that have on their careers in the future? And these sorts of questions, I think, are also really kind of important as to whether some of these changes will be damaging, or whether we’ll see for example, the growth in home working as something that maybe we can learn from, and that might help women’s position in the labour market, and therefore really helps to support families and their incomes of single parents and couple parents.

Mary Murphy  11:51 

Well, there’s a lot but I’m just going to point towards three that I am personally quite close to. The first is going back to my oldest in education, I would feel that although we’ve got a lot of quantitative data about who watched what, where, why, how when we don’t have a very good qualitative sense of how people experienced online education, both from the point of view of the students, but also from the point of view of the lecturers who were delivering online education. And I think until we have a better sense of that, we’re not in a position to make value judgments about what worked and what didn’t work and what we should proceed with. Because we don’t know the cost of us in terms of the the the informal losses that occurred in the context of delivering informal blended kinds of education. And the second area I mentioned earlier, but it relates to having a real sense of what the mental health implications of the pandemic are, particularly on young adults, because I think there are a particular group that we name in our discourses haven’t been impacted. But we do very little, I think, to really dig deep and try and understand what’s going on. And I think this is difficult to do, because I think they’re in the midst of other crises. I mean, even for example, the war in Ukraine, really unjust war is also impacting on anxiety and the kind of the existential kind of threat that that young people are feeling about the world in general. But I do think we need to give them more time and we need more space to understand what is going on for them, and what might work in terms of enabling them to resume a journey through life to adulthood. The third area relates to the degree to which we depend on paid and informal care in a lot of our lives in our own homes, but in other homes and in the broader community. And I think the pandemic did shine a light on that and exposed the degree to which there was a lot of informal unpaid care happening. But there is a sense now that we’re moving on that we just want to put that back in his box, make it invisible, keep it so that we don’t need to do anything about it. And we just assume that largely women in their lives will take up the burden of that care. But I think we need to do a lot to count this, to value it because it does play a fundamental role in a functioning healthy flourishing society, and economy.

 Catherine McDonald  14:07 

Next, we hear from Adam Salisbury research economist from the Institute for Fiscal Studies, Professor Rabe and Dr. Hick.

Adam Salisbury  14:15 

I would really like to see some more evidence on the value of remote learning compared to in person instruction. So this is something that came up a lot in our research. When we were trying to assess learning loss, we were able to measure the quantity of time that children spent learning quite nicely, but we found measuring the quality of this time was much more difficult. So before the pandemic, there were some studies looking at the effectiveness and distance learning in university contexts, but there was nothing in school contexts. And having had this information beforehand would have enabled us to get more accurate learning loss estimates, which could have helped inform the early policy response. Now having said this, while this is a gap in the evidence, the pandemic reveals, I expect we’ll learn a lot more about this in the coming months and years as we get test score information on the cohorts that experience distance learning throughout the pandemic. So I would be surprised if we found out that distance learning was as effective as in person instruction. Because you can imagine if you’re in a classroom, the teachers can pick up on cues much more easily from students, they can identify for students struggling with a problem, and they can provide more tailored support. Having said that, I think it’s very possible that distance learning became more effective as the pandemic progressed. Because we’ve learned lots of stories about our schools and teachers were able to sort of adapt and learn how to deliver distance learning more effectively, as they got more experienced in doing so.

Birgitta Rabe  15:29 

Definitely, we have to monitor and keep looking and seeing you know, how to meet the increased demand for mental health services. And monitoring definitely must be a part of that. We have conducted some research on free school meals fairly recently. And there seems to be a sense that the food that children eat at home is not as good nutritionally and often have higher calorific value than the food that children actually get at school. And added to that, I suspect, also children tend to get more exercise in school. And I mean, certainly if you compare the lockdown situation to going to school in the school run, and all of that will give you more physical exercise, I’m not surprised at all the children ended up being heavier for the height than they were pre-pandemic. But what we do know as well is that as households feel the financial squeeze, it is the case that if you have a low household budget, and often the quality of the food is worse, but it doesn’t mean that the calories also go down. So it’s more a matter of malnourishment. And that’s one of the dangers that this cost of living process is going to pose.

Rod Hick  16:40 

So I think there are probably three areas that we might productively see further research or that I think really are in need of further research. The first two are about the longer term impacts of what was really quite a unique experience during the pandemic. And those are the longer term impacts on people’s mental health, both for children and for adults. And then the long term impact on educational attainment, the inequality in that attainment, those are two areas that strike me as being hugely significant, where the sheer uniqueness of the experience of the pandemic means that this type of shock might well look quite different to what we know from the evidence base in terms of other shocks. The third is perhaps less remarked upon but I think is, you know, equally important, which is any impact on changes in family formation itself. You know, the extent to which people find partners, the marriage rate for those who are married the divorce rate, and ultimately, the fertility rates, the extent to which people are having children. Those strikes me as being important variables for us to be monitoring and examining, you know, not only this year, but in the years ahead, and indeed, examining the interaction between where we might see a shock or little change in relation to those variables, the kind of longer term effect potentially of a recession as we face into the coming years.

Catherine McDonald  18:09 

Finally, on the question of research priorities for the future, we hear from Dr. Murray and Dr. Kaufman.

Aisling Murray  18:15 

I think, I suppose a lot of the focus will be on things that we already know to be important, and just how those are things have changed, like I said, that emotional wellbeing, physical health unknown, I suppose what the longer term impacts might be for children and young adults who contracted COVID. But I think we’ve kind of considering going forward more about things like their screen time, the good and bad, especially for the younger cohort, the pandemic, if you’d like accelerated their immersion into the digital world, when so many things that they’d have normally done in person moved online. So in the field work that we’re currently doing with 13 year olds, we’ll be asking them more about their relationship with the internet, and also the parents how much time they spend online these days.

Jim Kaufman  18:55 

It’s an interesting question. And I think I’m not sure that I have a really clear answer to that yet. I think it’s still something that we’re kind of working through and trying to identify where those gaps might be. But I think one thing that is really clear, is that it’s not always about research gaps, so much as which research which evidence already have gets used, and which evidence gets, for whatever reason sidelined or ignored. So just speaking, in terms of COVID Realities, we’re working with parents and carers on a low income, most of whom are engaged with the social security system. And there’s already a great deal of evidence how that social security system currently inadequate to meet people’s needs and increasingly to meet their basic needs. There’s also a great deal of evidence documenting the ways that that doesn’t always work for people and that can actually present greater problems into them’s having to wait quite a long time for their first payments, in terms of repayable loans, rather than additional grants and all this kind of thing. So, you know, we already have a lot of evidence about these things. So I think there’s a kind of question there about which evidence gets used, and which gets ignored. And I think, in that sense, it’s not just about thinking about evidence gaps, but it’s thinking about the policy process, and how we make sure that the evidence that comes from people lived experience gets a hearing.

Aisling Murray  20:37 

One thing that came through from the focus groups we did with young adults was not just the idea that the pandemic had caused a traffic jam for them. But also that the pandemic combined with the housing crisis at the moment, meant that they weren’t really achieving the milestones, I suppose any order at the time they’d expect to do so young people experienced much more job loss and disruption to employment patterns during the pandemic than did older adults. But also, I suppose, the idea that then many of them move back home to be with parents, and I suppose are still there. And actually, one young person said to us that we should ask other young adults, are they still living the same life they were when they were 15? So between being at home with parents and perhaps not being able to get a job or progress their career, you know, have they really moved on in 10 years? And I thought that was quite powerful quote for somebody who’s approaching 25. But there were no there was a glimmer of some, you know, the kind of positive learnings from the pandemic and you know, suppose how you reevaluate sort of time with family and what you really want from life, it was a kind of an opportunity to pause if you like, and actually one young person said that, you know, they kind of think about changes in the idea of the social collective, as they describe that, you know, society and how we feel responsibility towards each other. So, you know, possibility for, I suppose, positive growth as well as negative aspects of the pandemic. And actually in our stakeholder councils, academics and researchers, they were quite keen to pursue that possibility of kind of positive growth for the self, if you like, as well as negative experiences.

Catherine McDonald  22:14  

My thanks to today’s guests, and indeed all our contributors on this series. You can find out more about the work of the Interdisciplinary Child Wellbeing Network via their website and Twitter @ICWBN. The work of the network is funded by the UK Research and Innovation Economic and Social Research Council and the Irish Research Council under the ESRC-IRC UK Ireland networking grants. This was a Research Podcasts production. Thank you for listening, and remember to subscribe to receive all future episodes.

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