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Table 1 How to study the unintended consequences of school closures intended to prevent the spread of coronavirus

From: The unintended consequences of COVID-19 mitigation measures matter: practical guidance for investigating them

Considerations to study unintended consequences Illustrative example
1. Set an explicit objective or research question targeting unintended consequences How is the nature and implementation of school closures interacting with local actors and the context to trigger unintended consequences?
2. Choose and define your terminology Unintended consequences are changes for which there is a lack of purposeful action or causation that occur as a result of closing schools.
3. Adopt a theory or conceptual framework Use a conceptual framework based on Rogers’ diffusion of innovations theory to examine how the nature of school closures and their implementation will interact with the social system and the characteristics of its members to produce various types of consequences:
1) undesirable/unanticipated (e.g. negative surprises);
2) undesirable/anticipated (e.g. trade-offs);
3) desirable/unanticipated (e.g. serendipities);
4) desirable/anticipated (e.g. positive spillovers).
4. Determine the study’s perspective Classify a consequence as anticipated if program planners explicitly referred to it (in documentation or interviews), if it was previously reported in the literature, or if the research team was able to forecast it.
Determine whether the consequences are desirable or undesirable, depending on whether the effects of school closures were functional or dysfunctional for the social system.
5. Clarify the intervention theory Outline program intention by: 1) reviewing program documents and social science theory; 2) interviewing stakeholders; 3) analyzing the discourse of decision-makers in the media; and 4) developing or reviewing the program theory.
6. Forecast potential unintended consequences Identify a preliminary list of potential unintended consequences of school closures to provide a starting point for data collection (e.g. increased television time, widened social inequalities, increased parental stress).
7. Focus on desirable, undesirable, and even neutral unintended consequences To avoid a negative bias, collect data on consequences that are desirable (e.g. explore positive new activities, bond with parents), undesirable (e.g. child abuse), and even neutral (e.g. less structured schedules).
8. Include flexible, exploratory methods Provide families with small wearable cameras during daily activities; ask parents to record diaries using voice memos; conduct participant observation on Facebook groups for parents and in outdoor play areas. Volunteer in a food distribution center for families to conduct observation and build relations with families. Conduct in-depth interviews with stakeholders.
9. Cast a wide net during the data collection Think broadly and deeply about the wide range of consequences resulting from school closures (e.g. mental, physical, social, financial, developmental, legal) on all members (e.g. children, parents, teachers) of the social system.
10. Follow the evolution of unintended consequences over time Adopt a longitudinal approach by collecting data related to the different phases of school closures (before, during, after).
11. Adopt an equity lens Consider differential effects on vulnerable populations, such as children of lower socioeconomic status, from ethnic minorities, or with learning disabilities.
12. Validate the classification of intended versus unintended consequences with stakeholders Discuss with public health officials, school board representatives, and teachers to validate findings and ensure that the consequences labelled by the research team as unintended were not actually intended.