‘Students are struggling in ways we haven’t seen before’

An ESRI study on voluntary secondary schools sheds new light on the enduring impact of the pandemic on students

While Covid restrictions were lifted across schools in February 2022, the pandemic continued to loom large in the lives of students at St Joseph’s CBS in Nenagh, Co Tipperary.

“We really see the knock-on effects of that period with first and second years, in particular,” says Karen O’Donnell, principal of the all-boys secondary school.

Dealing with learning gaps stemming from school closures has been fairly straightforward. What is proving far more challenging is trying to support the sheer number of students struggling with social skills, anxiety, resilience and managing stress.

“These boys were nine, 10 or 11 [during Covid] and were supposed to have been developing friendships, chancing their arm, testing the waters – all that stuff. They’re 13 or 14 now and they’re struggling in ways we wouldn’t have seen before,” she says.


“Areas like building relationships, making friends, maintaining friendships, going through all the peaks and troughs that come with that. They’re more limited in being able to handle it ... Covid seems to have had a tail-drag effect on their socialisation and coping strategies.”

It is a similar story at Mercy Secondary School in Ballymahon, Co Longford, a mixed school with around 760 students.

Principal Josephine Donohoe says the school’s motto of “bí cineálta”, or be kind, is about ensuring there is a happy atmosphere where students feel safe. Sometimes though, it can be a challenge to live up to those ideals.

“We’ve had to spell out what that actually means: being kind to one another, being careful about what you write on social media, taking accountability for your actions,” she says.

“We can see how the lack of social development and interaction affected them. That all got interrupted, just at a time when they are going from children into young adults ... They’re also more stressed. If they don’t know how to manage that, they won’t build up resilience in future.”

These schools aren’t alone. Similar findings are echoed in a new report by the ESRI, published today, which sheds new light on the enduring impact of the pandemic on student motivation, wellbeing, social development, ability to reconnect with peers and manage stress.

The report, commissioned by the Joint Managerial Body, focuses on the voluntary secondary sector in Ireland – schools typically owned or managed by religious groups – which account for over half of all second-level schools.

It draws on a range of research including focus group interviews and surveys of students and staff across 21 voluntary secondary schools.

Authors Eamonn Carroll, Selina McCoy and Keyu Ye found that the pandemic has had a “profound and enduring impact” on young people and their families and schools, with dramatic increases in referrals to child and adolescent mental health services,

It documents a sharp decline in student wellbeing, engagement and school attendance during the Covid period, but highlights how it has continues to cast a shadow over some pupils.

The lasting impact of the pandemic is evident in surveys with over half of students surveyed noting adverse effects on their wellbeing (51 per cent), overall learning (62 per cent) and academic performance (57 per cent).

The report says many students became more solitary learners, lacking the interactive and collaborative learning experiences they would have in a traditional classroom setting. This may have impacted their engagement and the depth of their learning experiences.

Teachers and staff interviewed in the study also highlight worrying learning gaps among students.

“The groundwork for how to engage academically is missing,” says one guidance counsellor, quoted in the report. “It’s there, but it’s weak. The scaffolding is not as strong as it would be ...”

Academically, younger students have struggled more with the basics of their courses, as well as simple life skills.

“Reading the clock, tying your shoelaces, those sorts of things. I’m finding especially with the first years and with the current second years that you’d be surprised that they haven’t quite mastered stuff like that.”

Students, too, admit that they are struggling. Many fifth-year students reported that they found the transition to senior cycle education and the Leaving Cert challenging and, in some cases, overwhelming.

“We’re kind of in the deep end, don’t really know what we’re doing, just winging it. It’s a scary feeling,” says one fifth-year student.

“It’s almost as if we were kind of spoon-fed the Junior Cert ... and now it’s all just shoved down our throats,” adds another.

Missing the Junior Cycle exams was challenging for some students. Many mentioned that knowing they would not have to sit the exams negatively impacted their motivation to study at home.

This was also observed by teachers, even for the highest-achieving students.

“If you asked me what he’d get in his Leaving Cert in first year, he was a 625-point student,” says one teacher, of a student in their class. “I don’t know if it was the Covid halting his learning or what, but ... the drive academically has just vanished.”

Students not only struggled with catching up on their academic performance; they also found it challenging to manage the pressure of preparing for exams, meeting deadlines and completing a substantial amount of writing within a limited time frame in an exam context.

Some teachers, however, felt that many of these issues are not only associated with the pandemic, but with the increasing use of smartphones and social media.

“We’ve come out of Covid, but they haven’t come out of their phones,” said one teacher.

There is also a significant impact on wellbeing.

The weakened wellbeing of students has resulted in a higher demand for support services, with more students seeking personal counselling – especially since the pandemic.

The issues range from social anxiety, educational-based anxiety, self-harm, conflict with others in their lives and various mental health concerns.

“Anxiety is huge,” one guidance counsellor says. “Self-harm is huge. There’s school refusal ... I definitely would see conflict. I would deal with conflict, not from a discipline perspective but from a kind of a mediation or a restorative-practice perspective. It’s endless.”

Interviews with school personnel in the study suggest increased absenteeism, which is likely to be associated with a deterioration in student mental wellbeing.

Life satisfaction levels also vary widely, with rates lower among girls, students with additional needs and those from economically vulnerable families.

Students who report feeling they belong at school and who perceive better wellbeing supports at school are more likely to report higher levels of life satisfaction.

Overall, the study concludes that students’ experiences since the pandemic highlight the urgent need for professional, therapeutic supports for children and young people.

Minister for Education Norma Foley recently announced plans to boost supports for second level students, though they do not involve substantive one-to-one counselling or therapeutic support by specialists.

Paul Downes, professor of psychology of education at DCU, says plans for “generic, non-specialist supports” rather than specialised counsellors or therapists in schools “is frankly a slap in the face to younger generations in secondary schools in Ireland.”

He says there is an urgent need for specialist emotional counsellors and therapists in secondary school, as was recommended in an Oireachtas education committee report as an “urgent priority”.

It is a conclusion that Karen O’Donnell agrees with wholeheartedly.

“We’re really crying out for school-based therapeutic supports,” she says. “The fear is, if we don’t address it now, what does it mean at age 16, 18 or 21? I don’t know. We don’t have the skill set to deal with what’s coming to our doors at the moment.”

She says clustered or shared supports for schools is one potential approach, give that child and adolescent mental health services are so overwhelmed. Either way, she feels, schools cannot wait.

“I’ve worked here for 20 years and these are issues we haven’t seen before. The pandemic, smartphones, social media; I think they all have huge parts to play.”

Post pandemic: how students are faring two years after Covid

61% – secondary school students who feel Covid had affected their overall learning

57% – secondary school students who feel the pandemic has impacted their academic performance

51% – secondary school students who feel Covid is impacting on their social lives