Covid-19 posed challenges for school life and for school research. It made researchers rethink the purposes and methodologies of scientific projects (DeMatthews et al., 2020). This was also true for RefugeesWellSchool (RWS), a pan-European school-based psychosocial intervention study. How to meaningfully implement and evaluate school interventions during a pandemic? How to sustain research as relevant for schools? Here we outline how RWS responded to these questions.
Setting the scene
Schools are important sites for promoting the wellbeing of migrants and refugees (Tyrer & Fazel, 2014), yet there is little evidence on the effectiveness of school-based psychosocial interventions. RWS implemented five interventions: Classroom Drama, Welcome to School, Peer Integration and Enhancement Resource Programme, In-Service Teacher Training and In-Service Teacher Training with Teaching Recovery Techniques. They took place in secondary schools in Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Norway, Sweden and the UK. While different, a common element between them was their focus on social relationships, a key element in wellbeing (Fazel et al., 2012).
‘Schools are important sites for promoting the wellbeing of migrants and refugees, yet there is little evidence on the effectiveness of school-based psychosocial interventions.’
RWS followed a randomised control trial (RCT) design. Three measurement moments were planned: one before the interventions, another immediately after, and the third two to five months later. Data was collected with adolescents, teachers and parents, using questionnaires, focus groups and interviews.
RWS was in the middle of implementation when Covid-19 was announced as a pandemic. Teachers reported disrupted contact with migrant students; school staff became overwhelmed by increased workload; in many countries, school closures made it impossible for RWS to continue the interventions and their assessment in schools.
Diversification of intervention modalities
RWS developed online content of the interventions. However, many schools regarded online continuation as impossible. RWS accommodated to schools’ wishes and opportunities in deciding how to continue the interventions. Therefore, some received concise online sessions, others stopped during the lockdown and continued once schools reopened, and others were terminated earlier than planned.
Changes in measurements
Measurement moved fully online. The project developed audio files to facilitate filling in online questionnaires, or teachers provided online support for students. Focus group and interview guides were revised to reflect the changed scenario. Not intending to bring further burden on participants’ lives, many interventions cancelled the third measurement.
Changing epistemologies of ‘effectiveness’
Covid-19 implied large dropout and many uncontrolled contextual features which are not ideal in RCTs. Our initial understandings on ‘effectiveness’ were then rethought. We analysed quantitative data in light of the circumstances of the pandemic. We also emphasised participants’ complex lived experiences with the interventions, now in the context of Covid-19. Reflecting on the impact of the pandemic on school life and intervention has become an integral part of discussing effectiveness (RefugeesWellSchool, 2021).
New research objectives
We added new objectives that have become relevant under changed circumstances. We investigated how teachers’ care work was interrupted (Primdahl et al., 2021), and whether migrant students’ sense of belonging changed during the lockdown (Szelei et al. 2022). The project also got insights to both the negative and positive impact of COVID-19 on school life and wellbeing (RefugeesWellSchool, 2021).
Conducting RWS during the pandemic highlighted the complexity of conducting school-based interventions and researchers’ ethical responsibilities towards migrant students and school communities. We suggest that researchers become aware of and critically reflect on how emergencies change participants’ lives and what these changes mean for project activities. Flexibility and responsiveness to the needs and opportunities of diverse members of a school community, and embedding new contextual features, are key.
DeMatthews, D., Knight, D., Reyes, P., Benedict, A., & Callahan, R. (2020). From the field: Education research during a pandemic. Educational Researcher, 49(6), 398–402. https://doi.org/10.3102/0013189X20938761
Fazel, M., Reed, R. V., Panter-Brick, C., & Stein, A. (2012). Mental health of displaced and refugee children resettled in high-income countries: Risk and protective factors. The Lancet, 379 (9812), 266–282. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(11)60051-2
Primdahl, N. L., Borsch, A. S., Verelst, A., Jervelund, S. S., Derluyn, I., & Skovdal, M. (2021). ‘It’s difficult to help when I am not sitting next to them’: How COVID-19 school closures interrupted teachers’ care for newly arrived migrant and refugee learners in Denmark. Vulnerable Children and Youth Studies, 16(1), 75–85. https://doi.org/10.1080/17450128.2020.1829228
RefugeesWellSchool (2021). RefugeesWellSchool report: Findings on how school-based interventions promote migrant and refugee adolescents’ well-being. Ghent University.
Szelei, N., Devlieger, I., Verelst, A., Spaas, C., Jervelund, S. S., Primdahl, N. L., … & Derluyn, I. (2022). Migrant students’ sense of belonging and the Covid‐19 pandemic: Implications for educational inclusion. Social Inclusion, 10(2), 172–184. https://doi.org/10.17645/si.v10i2.5106
Tyrer, R. A., & Fazel, M. (2014). School- and community-based interventions for refugee and asylum seeking children: A systematic review. PLOS ONE, 9, e89359. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0089359