NYCI research highlights continued impact of Covid-19 on youth work services and young people’s engagement
Sixty-nine per cent of youth work sector organisations saw a decrease in the number of young people engaging with their services, with 80,000 less young people engaged, since the outbreak of the pandemic. That’s according to a research report, ‘Youth Work and Covid-19: 2021 Review of the Youth Work Sector Response to the Covid-19 Pandemic’, published by the National Youth Council of Ireland (NYCI).
The findings show that four in every five organisations (83%) attributed the drop in engagement from young people to the pandemic, with a concern among some youth workers and volunteers about the lack of young people re-engaging with in-person provision as restrictions ease. The research indicates that not being able to reach young people who disengaged, in particular vulnerable or marginalised young people, is a key issue for youth workers volunteers and managers.
The research also found an overall 62% reduction in the number of youth groups – a loss of more than 1,000 groups and clubs, while 63% of those who continued operating did so with a reduced service.
A further 61% of the services surveyed saw a decrease in volunteer involvement, with figures falling from 11,102 in 2019/20 to 3,951 in 2020/21, equating to a drop of 64%.
Data produced from interviews and focus groups conducted for the report also revealed the resilience of the youth work sector and showed how it adapted and collaborated in response to the challenges presented by the pandemic. An online games night, a pen-pal initiative and an online Shakespeare Festival were just some of the examples of activities planned and facilitated by youth groups to keep young people connected. The report also highlighted young peoples’ appreciation for their youth leaders’ efforts in facilitating groups, encouraging a sense of connection and their willingness to go above and beyond.
Commenting today, Mary Cunningham, CEO of NYCI, said: “This report exposes the devastating impact caused by Covid-19 to youth work services and young people, particularly vulnerable, marginalised and at-risk young people. It is worrying to see the continued disengagement of thousands of young people from youth services across the country, despite the easing of restrictions, and reemphasises the importance of face-to-face meetings and activities for young people to keep them involved and connected.
“The decline in the number of youth work volunteers, as a result of the pandemic, is also something that we urgently need to address. Volunteers play a vital role in supporting young people through what are very pivotal years of their lives. This work is essential, and we hope that as we start to rebuild and live with Covid-19, youth work can bounce back – stronger and more resilient that ever. To achieve this, we will need increased and sustained investment in workforce development, greater recognition of the value of youth work, as well as increased strategic collaboration amongst key organisations and agencies.”
Among the many other key findings highlighted in the report are the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on:
Fallout from the ‘digital divide’
72% of youth service manager respondents and 71% of youth worker and volunteer respondents reported young people not having adequate digital access and young people who are reluctant to engage digitally as being the two principal limitations to the delivery of youth work during the pandemic.
Many respondents were concerned about young people whose families could not afford the necessary equipment and wi-fi or provide private physical space in the home to continue engagement online. There was unease among respondents about young people who already face exclusion or marginalisation not being able to get online such as those in the Traveller community, those with a disability, those in Direct Provision, or LGBTI+ young people who aren’t out at home. Some youth workers observed a false perception of the level of young people’s digital literacy and how this can be a barrier to engagement. Several referred to connectivity issues particularly in rural areas. One young person suggested there should be spaces in communities, for example within a youth centre, where young people can join Zoom calls for college.
Mental health challenges for young people, youth workers and volunteers
57% of the youth workers and volunteers surveyed cited concern for young people’s mental health as one of the key challenges they have faced since the pandemic started. Almost two-thirds of managers (63%) who responded to the survey stated that staff mental health was negatively affected, while this was true for just under one-third of youth worker and volunteer respondents (32%). 56% per of managers who responded to the survey said their staff experienced burnout, while 46% of the youth worker and volunteer respondents reported having experienced burnout. Some respondents reported a concern around this increasing the risk of youth workers leaving the role altogether.
In response to a question about the limitations to delivering youth work during the pandemic, 29% of youth service managers, youth workers and volunteers cited reduced income generation opportunities, 26% cited reduced fundraising opportunities and 13% cited reduced funding from external sources.
The report was produced by researchers Deborah Erwin and Lorraine Thompson, using a combination of quantitative and qualitative research tools, including a comparison of data from March 2019 to February 2020, and March 2020 to February 2021, as well as interviews, focus groups and surveys conducted with youth service CEOs and managers, youth workers and volunteers and young people.
The full report can be accessed online here.