Research Snapshot: Students’ well-being, stress and mental health while returning to school during COVID-19

Students’ well-being, stress and mental health while returning to school during the COVID-19 pandemic

What you need to know

Students across Canada have faced many stressors throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. This includes health risks and concerns related to the virus, the psychological impact of school closures and shifting to virtual learning, and worries around returning to school in person. This paper shares the results from the first wave of a one-year study that looked at the well-being of students 12 to 18-years-old in Alberta, during the first few weeks after returning to school in the fall of 2020. The preliminary findings suggest that overall, youth were doing well six months into the pandemic, and that differences in mental health may reflect pre-existing issues. The authors recommend a need for age- and gender-targeted COVID-19 public health messaging in Canada.


This Research Snapshot is based on the article, “COVID-19 and student well-being: Stress and mental health during return-to-school,” which was published in Canadian Journal of School Psychology in 2021.  

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What is this research about?

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, students’ access to classroom instruction, peer groups, teacher-mentors and academic support stopped abruptly and for many youth remain unavailable. Students who returned to school in the fall of 2020 were required to maintain physical distancing and wear masks, had to social distance from peers and friends, and they experienced changes in school curriculum delivery. These changes are expected to impact student academic achievement, peer and friend relationships, and mental health and well-being. The goal of this study was to gather ask youth about their feelings about COVID-19, their mental health, and related health and protective behaviours.

What did the researchers do?

The researchers developed a survey aiming to look at the following:

  • students’ experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic, including their concerns about personal, family, and national health and their virtual and in person school experiences; and
  • the relationship between students’ COVID-19-related stress and mental health.

Researchers surveyed 2,310 students from four of Alberta’s largest metropolitan school divisions (two public, two Catholic). The students were 12 to 18-years-old during their first few weeks of school in the fall of 2020. The survey covered several topics:

  • Remote learning experience: Questions related to virtual education during school closures, support services they received, how they engaged with their teacher(s), how parents engaged with their child’s remote learning, and in whether they returned to school in fall 2020 in person or virtually.
  • COVID-19 health and protection behaviours: Questions related to physical distancing, socializing outside their bubble, mask-wearing, exposure to media related to COVID-19, concerns about their health, household members’ health, vulnerable peoples’ health, nation and world health, overloading the health system, maintaining social ties, family confinement and stress, and violence in the home.

The youth who participated in the study also completed two psychological questionnaires:

  • Child Revised Impact of Events Scale (CRIES): a 13-item measure assessing present experiences of a traumatic event, avoidance of that event, and the feelings to which it gave rise.
  • Behavior Intervention Monitoring Assessment System (BIMAS-2): A 34-item questionnaire that asks about behaviour, emotional, and attention, and memory problems.
  • Demographics: Age, gender, race/ethnicity, family structure, and socioeconomic status.

What did the researchers find?

Eight out of 10 students who participated in the study returned to school in person in the fall of 2020. Students reported moderate and equal concern for their own health, family confinement, and maintaining social contact.

Remote learning experiences

Four out of five participants indicated that, when schools closed in March 2020, they engaged with their teachers in a virtual school curriculum-learning environment. Almost two out of three students indicated that their parents or caregivers asked about their schoolwork, while just less than half said they had mostly directed their own learning. Most students said they received no therapeutic support after schools closed, but one in 10 did seek individual counselling or therapy during that time.

COVID-19 health and protective behaviours

Nine out of 10 participants said they wore a mask in public all or most of the time, and six out of 10 said they followed physical distancing recommendations all or most of the time. Males were significantly more likely to say that they maintained a 2-metre distance with people outside their household most of the time. Females were less likely to state that they consistently kept this 2-metre distance, however, they were more likely than males to say that they wore a mask in public all the time. Younger participants were also more likely to say they complied with physical distancing recommendations all or most of the time.

Stress and mental health

The results show that stress reactions were far below the critical cut-off for the likelihood of a PTSD diagnosis. Female and older participants had significantly higher stress-reaction scores, and they were significantly more likely to be sad or withdrawn and have difficulty paying attention and remembering things than were males in the study. Older youth were also more likely to feel angry than younger youth, while males were significantly more likely to feel angry. Some youth, especially females, also felt that COVID-19 is a threat to both health and social relationships.

How can you use this research?

There are groups who require continued and focused support, specifically cisgender female youth and older youth (i.e., 15-18 year olds). Schools should consider using messaging that is targeted according to age and gender when encouraging students to follow public health orders. For example, with older adolescents, school mental health practitioners could focus messaging on how most youth their age are following guidelines (e.g., a social norms approach). School mental health practitioners should also consider using universal screening measures to continue to monitor student stress and mental health and better support students.

About the researchers

The researchers are from the University of Calgary, AB, Canada, and include Kelly Dean Schwartz; Deinera Exner-Cortens, Carly A. McMorris, Erica Makarenko, Paul Arnold, Marisa Van Bavel, Sarah Williams, and Rachel Canfield.