Conducting school based research over COVID-19 lockdown: Fiona McHale

Schools have the ability to reach a wide range of children from across the population regardless of social background and over a continuous period of time (Anderson, 2016) making them a key gatekeeper for important research on children and young people. Our Active School Flag (ASF) project team have been conducting research in schools since spring 2018 as part of a co-design process and investigating the feasibility of this whole-school physical activity (PA) programme in secondary schools in Ireland.

In the PESS department we have a range of research teams conducting various types of research in schools. It is timely that an online forum for PESS staff and postgrads on carrying out school-based research during Covid-19 restrictions took place for the first time last week. Outside of our recent experiences over lockdown, I believe this forum has lots of future potential for those carrying out school-based research to have a support network and regular collaboration on best practice methods and experiences. Having informal expert and peer advice from colleagues in the department before beginning my first data collection was extremely helpful, particularly for informal training on logistical planning. However, having an official formal support network to bounce ideas off and ask questions from a wide range of perspectives would also ensure more efficient ongoing learning for useful strategies in conducting best practice research.

For this forum led by Dr Elaine Murtagh, I was asked to share my experiences of conducting school-based research during COVID-19. Conducting school-based research is challenging. Conducting school-based research over a lockdown is even more challenging but many learnings for the future have been taken from it.

As with so many others, we had no choice but to move all face-to face research to online methods. For this we switched the face-to face interview with a telephone interview and focus groups to an online platform on Microsoft teams.  

Key takeaways from the restrictions are that qualitative work with school staff can be conducted away from the school as efficiently and effectively as face-to-face methods. I found phone interviews a lot more convenient for all involved. They are more time efficient and participants can chat in the comfort of their own home away from the busy school environment. Importantly, having established a rapport over previous school visits with the participant made moving to phone interviews a smooth transition. Similarly, an online focus group with teachers worked well and there is future potential for also conducting these with students, now that they are more accustomed to the online teaching environment. Phone interviews and especially online focus groups were approaches I had never considered before but have now become the current and most likely future reality for research.

Additionally, for our questionnaires we would normally have the luxury of being able to administer this face to face with students in a classroom setting. After consultation with our six pilot schools we sent a survey link to all school management and the ASF coordinator (lead teacher) to administer in the most appropriate way for them. These were unprecedented times for schools and facilitating online learning varied from school to school, thus schools were put under no pressure to complete the research but asked to do what was feasible under the circumstances. In order to gain a substantial response rate, we created a protocol that involved regular communication with school management and the ASF coordinator to keep them up to date on their current response rate, encourage them to complete the survey and provided suggested strategies to help reach as many students as possible. Furthermore, we provided an incentive to the schools for each student that fully completed the survey.

Our survey was fully completed by 1214 students across 6 schools (27%). This is a response rate that we are proud of and particularly gaining some new insights into adolescents’ experiences of lockdown has been extremely useful for the development of the ASF programme. We recently published a paper on this data exploring the barriers and facilitators to changes in adolescent PA during COVID-19 (Ng, 2020).  For this, we asked the students how physically active they were over the last 7 days and if this was typical of a usual week. If it was not typical we asked them to explain why. Our findings showed that 30% of students remained the same as a typical week, 50% usually took part in more PA and 20% usually did less PA. Adolescents who did less PA were more likely to be overweight or obese and less likely to have strong prior PA habits. The main barriers for those who reported a decrease in their PA levels (50%) were coronavirus/lockdown, club training cancelled/facilities not open and more school work. The main facilitators for those who reported an increase in their PA levels (20%) were having more time, having nothing else to do/boredom, to increase fitness/health and going on walks. Gaining this insight has given us, as part of the ASF research team a greater insight for future situations such as this pandemic and how we can alleviate these barriers to PA and adopt more adolescent friendly approaches to messaging, restrictions and provision of more age appropriate resources from schools, families, communities, public health and industry.


Anderson EL, Howe LD, Kipping RR, Campbell R, Jago R, Noble SM, et al. Long-term effects of the Active for Life Year 5 (AFLY5) school-based cluster-randomised controlled trial. BMJ open. 2016;6(11).

Ng K, Cooper J, McHale F, Clifford J, Woods C. Barriers and facilitators to changes in adolescent physical activity during COVID-19. BMJ Open Sport & Exercise Medicine. 2020;6(1):e000919.

Fiona McHale is a postgraduate student in the Department of Physical Education and Sport Sciences. She can be contacted at or twitter: @fionamchale

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