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What is the effect of the closure of schools and universities on children and students?

Text updated on 2020-11-11

Between March and May 2020, schools in many countries closed down totally or partially. These closures had negative consequences for children in terms of learning, health, and psychological well-being. A health protocol based on recent knowledge on the spread of SARS-CoV-2 could help keep schools open while limiting the spread of the coronavirus.

Numerous studies have been carried out in various countries (Spain, United States, France, Italy, Malaysia, United Kingdom, etc.) to assess the consequences for children of the closure of schools in March-May 2020.

Firstly, the closure of schools has increased the risk of pupils dropping out, with an even greater risk within the priority education networks, thus tending to increase educational inequalities.

Containment has had an effect on the health of children and adolescents. It has led to a decrease in physical activity following the cessation of physical education and sports classes, the suppression of sports activities, and anincrease in the time spent in front of monitors. These factors increase the risk of overweight and obesity even in children, which is a factor in the development of many diseases and increases the risk of developing a severe form of COVID-19. See the question What is the risk of dying from COVID-19 for an infected person?

The psychological effects of confinement in children and adolescents can be observed at several levels. School is not only a place of learning; it is also a place where children and adolescents develop multiple social relationships, and social interactions are essential for cognitive development. Confinement has also increased young people's anxiety levels, affected their emotional state and led to isolating behaviours. Being constantly in the presence of parents who are themselves anxious and/or depressed increases stress in the child. Finally, the closure of schools has increased the number of cases of mistreatment, probably due to the increase in time spent at home.

How to keep schools open despite the COVID-19 pandemic?
The closure of schools at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic has been decided invited to reduce the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus. Since that time, scientific and medical studies have led to a better understanding of how the coronavirus is transmitted and how to limit its spread within individuals. Health protocols that take into account this new knowledge have been developed and their implementation greatly reduces the risk of infection.

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Most of the world's governments have temporarily closed educational institutions in order to contain the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. These national closures affect hundreds of millions of students around the world. Several other countries have implemented localized closures affecting millions more learners.

UNESCO website. Accessed Nov 7, 2020.

Survey in France carried out by Syn-Lab from April 25 to April 28, 2020 among 1,001 teachers in primary and secondary schools (schools, colleges, and high schools) in the form of a questionnaire transmitted via the Internet (via the EtreProf.fr platform) which showed the effects of confinement on school dropout.


A modelling study that simulates the effects of school closures on weight gain.

An, R. (2020). Projecting the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on childhood obesity in the US: A microsimulation model. Journal of Sport and Health Science.

School closures lead to food insecurity, increased sedentary activities, and increased screen time, all of which increase the risk of overweight and obesity.

Rundle, A. G., Park, Y., Herbstman, J. B., Kinsey, E. W., & Wang, Y. C. (2020). COVID -19-Related School Closings and Risk of Weight Gain Among Children. Obesity.

Review on the essential role of social interactions in both children and adults.

Frith, C. D., & Frith, U. (2007). Social cognition in humans. Current biology, 17(16), R724-R732.

A study in Malaysia of 1,054 university students showed an increase in anxiety levels during confinement. Factors contributing to increased stress were financial constraints, distance learning, and uncertainty about the future.

Sundarasen, S., Chinna, K., Kamaludin, K., Nurunnabi, M., Baloch, G. M., Khoshaim, H. B., ... & Sukayt, A. (2020). Psychological impact of covid-19 and lockdown among university students in malaysia: Implications and policy recommendations. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 17(17), 6206.

In Italy and Spain, the first European countries to close schools, 85.7% of parents perceived changes in their child's emotional state and behaviour during confinement. The most frequent symptoms were: attention difficulties (76.6%), boredom (52%), irritability (39%), restlessness (38.8%), nervousness (38%), feelings of isolation (31.3%), feelings of discomfort (30.4%), and worry (30.1%).

Orgilés, M., Morales, A., Delvecchio, E., Mazzeschi, C., & Espada, J. P. (2020, April 21). Immediate psychological effects of the COVID-19 quarantine in youth from Italy and Spain.

The results of this Italian study indicate that during confinement, 30% of the parents report excessive use of video and network games, 25% report changes in eating and sleeping habits, and 18% report isolation and withdrawal behaviour.

Caffo, E., Scandroglio, F., & Asta, L. (2020). Debate: COVID-19 and psychological well-being of children and adolescents in Italy. Child and adolescent mental health, 25(3), 167-168.

Study carried out during the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States in 420 families that show a link between parental burden, mental health, and perceived stress in children.

Russell, B. S., Hutchison, M., Tambling, R., Tomkunas, A. J., & Horton, A. L. (2020). Initial challenges of caregiving during COVID-19Caregiver burden, mental health, and the parent-child relationship. Child Psychiatry & Human Development, 51(5), 671-682.

In the United Kingdom, schools closed at the end of March 2020 and only reopened in August and September. This meant that many working parents had to juggle their professional work with their childcare responsibilities such as home schooling. One study showed that many parents used the morning to work, and that the most common hours for home schooling were in the late afternoon and evening. In early April, respondents to a national survey were asked whether they agreed that home schooling strains relationships within the household, and almost half (48 per cent) strongly or somewhat agreed. Nearly one-third (30%) of parents strongly or somewhat agreed that home schooling affects their well-being, and 50% said it affects the well-being of their children.

Office for National Statistics. UK. Coronavirus (COVID-19) in 10 charts. Last accessed Nov 7 2020.

A survey conducted in Italy among 18,147 people shows that after 3 to 4 weeks of confinement, more than 80% of individuals show symptoms of stress, post-traumatic stress disorder, and insomnia, with women and young people being more affected.

Rossi, R, Socci, V, Talevi, D, Mensi, S, Niolu, C, Pacitti, F, Marco, A, Rossi, A, Siracusano, A, Di Lorenzo, G. (2020). COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown measures impact on mental health among the general population in Italy. An N=18,147 web-based survey.

SOS Amitié, a national helpline for people in distress in France, received 1,000 more calls per day in October 2020 than in January-February 2020, before the confinement. The association deplores that "the unprecedented situation of the health crisis due to COVID-19 has generated new suffering or anxiety and, consequently, a significant increase in the number of calls."

SOS Amitié is recruiting 500 volunteers to respond to the increase in distress calls related to COVID-19. Actu.fr. 9 Oct 2020. Last accessed Nov 7 2020.

Humans are ultra-social beings. In the course of evolution, a unique form of sociability has emerged in humans that partly explains the specificity of human cognition and morality.

Tomasello, M. (2014). The ultra-social animal. Eur. J. Soc. Psychol. 44: 187-194. doi:10.1002/ejsp.2015

Reports of intra-family violence increased by a third during the March-April 2020 lockdown in France. This violence is a risk factor for the development of mental pathologies. In France, if you are a victim or if you are aware of a situation of child abuse, you can call 119 (911 in US/Canada, 999 in UK). If you are a victim or if you are aware of a situation of violence against a woman, you can call 3919 (different in other countries).

Assessment of the activity of 119 (similar to 911 in US/Canada, 999 in UK) - containment period from 18 March to 10 May 2020.

This article proposes a sanitary protocol based on the latest knowledge of the transmission of SARS-CoV-2 to enable schools to be kept open in optimal sanitary conditions to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in a school setting.

Hyde, Z. (2020). COVID-19Children, and schools: overlooked and at risk. The Medical Journal of Australia, 1.

Further reading

At what age should children wear a mask at school, depending on the country?

Can my child transmit COVID-19 ?

What are the symptoms of COVID-19 in children?

How to prepare for a COVID-19 nasopharyngeal test? And, in particular, for dependent people (children, the elderly, the disabled)?

How do I explain COVID-19 to children?

What are the psychological effects of COVID-19?

What are the physical effects of confinement and social distancing?

How best to live during the containment and pandemic of COVID-19?