What can we learn from COVID-19?


teenage schoolboy wearing a maskIn this short piece, Dr Jo Neary of the Network for Social and Educational Equity (NSEE) reflects on how schools’ responses to COVID-19 both emphasised existing good practice and challenged schools to reflect on their social responsibility role within the community.

In April 2020, over 180 countries implemented school closures in response to the community spread of COVID-19. This act created a ripple effect, with interruptions to learning, to additional support for learners, but also interrupted the support given to the most vulnerable pupils.

It is argued that COVID-19 did not create new vulnerabilities, but rather, it shone a light on existing vulnerabilities within the community and exacerbated them. This was particularly the case in families where there was a loss of income due to COVID-19 related redundancy or parental ill-health.

Reports from NSPCC (2021) and ONS (2020) commented on the risks of lockdown to young people of increased parental alcohol and drug misuse, and increased exposure to domestic violence. This increased vulnerability occurred at a time where services were under lockdown, meaning there was reduced contact between children, families and the sectors that offered support, such as child protective services, therapeutic support and respite charities. 

‘Cusp’ of vulnerability

Vulnerability is not a binary term, however, and is a precarious and time sensitive concept (Levine et al, 2020). Often families can be on the cusp of vulnerability without ever being known to services or may spend a short period of time receiving support but can then leave.

During the COVID-19 lockdowns, locating those vulnerable pupils and families was therefore a challenge. Schools and other services were required to find both those they were aware of, but also check in with those families who were not previously ‘vulnerable’ and those who were on the cusp of requiring help.

The role of the school

COVID-19 underlined the vast array of responsibilities that fall on teachers. Schools have long moved beyond the “school as a site of learning” and the 3 Rs, with modern schooling also focusing on citizenship, on health and wellbeing, on inclusion and nurture.

In Scotland, these can be seen as the key elements of Curriculum for Excellence and Getting It Right for Every Child (GIRFEC). The response of schools to the challenges of COVID-19 both emphasised what was already happening in schools and challenged educators to advance further.

It rapidly redefined schooling and leadership (Bagwell, 2020). The year 2020 saw schools react and respond in new ways, with teachers requiring to skill-up quickly in terms of online learning (delivering classes via webcam, monitoring participation, uploading classwork, and responding to parental IT issues).

children in front of laptops

Wider socio-economic challenges

Schools were also required to respond to the wider socio-economic challenges within their communities, particularly in relation to food poverty and digital poverty. We saw schools deliver internet dongles and digital devices to those families who did not have access to the internet and ensure those pupils who previously received a free school meal could still obtain this, either via delivery or via the school hubs (Brown et al, 2020, CNS, 2020, Ferguson et al, 2021, McLeod and Dulsky, 2021).  

As described in a previous piece, the hub enabled pupils from front-line worker families, or from families defined as vulnerable, to receive face-to-face support. It offered respite for parents, and a nurturing environment for pupils.

To transform into this community facing role, schools were also required to work closely with other organisations such as social work, psychological services, third sector and others to ensure wrap around care could be provided to the right pupils at the right time. At times it also required schools to share buildings and responsibilities.

During the pandemic, the NSEE team have spoken to many schools within Scotland about their lessons learned during the early months. One of the most telling lessons was how the pandemic has transformed their relationships with parents, with a shift from parents attending meetings if their child needs more attention, or the parents’ night conference, to teachers calling parents to check in and offer help if needed. Reaching beyond the school gates to being better able to respond to family need could then have an invaluable impact on how pupils are supported in the classroom.

What does this mean for the future?

COVID-19 has enabled schools to use their intelligence and professional networks to become more responsive to community need. By breaking barriers between “the school” and “the home”, we see even more intelligence being gathered regarding the wider context of the learners and how schools can ensure their pupils are being supported.

But what does this mean for the future of schools? Castrellon et al (2021) discussed the potential for schools to be a site of “collective healing”, with a call to reject the previous “normal” ways of working, as this did not serve all pupils.

In terms of Scotland, the poverty related attainment gap remains a policy challenge, and while we have made good moves to address this, it remains top of the political agenda.

So what would Castrellon’s concept look like in a post-pandemic Scotland? Their piece described the importance of strengthening the community rather than focusing on the individual, that instead of solely being trauma informed, we also look to recovery.

The pandemic has shown different ways to make this happen:

  • sharing information between locally embedded services to grow the evidence base and provide for those who need multi-sector support rather than silo’d responses
  • ensuring relationships with families continue to flourish;
  • and looking critically at GIRFEC to understand what community based organisations could be brought in to link learning within and beyond the classroom.

Individual schools cannot shoulder the heavy responsibility alone, instead they should be seen as a vital cog in a larger support system who all need to work together for the common goal of child and family wellbeing.

Photo o masked teenager courtesy of Alexandra Koch on Pixabay.




We are the Network for Social and Educational Equity, based in the Robert Owen Centre for Educational Change at the University of Glasgow. We work with governments, educational institutions, local authorities and teachers to promote educational change.

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About NSEE

The Network for Social and Educational Equity (NSEE) is part of the Robert Owen Centre for Educational Change (ROC) at the University of Glasgow.

It works in collaboration with schools, local authorities, Education Scotland and partner services to tackle the poverty-related attainment gap in young people’s education.

NSEE helps schools to use appropriate evidence and data within collaborative working approaches to critically examine context and current arrangements, make changes based on evidence, monitor the impact of these changes and reflect on what they learn.

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