Notice of Special Interest (NOSI): COVID-19 Related School Disruptions Impact on Mental Health, Cognitive, Social, and Emotional Development of Children
Notice Number:

Key Dates

Release Date:

March 31, 2021

First Available Due Date:
June 05, 2021
Expiration Date:
September 08, 2022

Related Announcements

PA-20-185 - NIH Research Project Grant (Parent R01 Clinical Trial Not Allowed)

Issued by

National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH)

Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD)


NIMH is issuing this Notice of Special Interest (NOSI) to highlight interest in research to understand the mental health impact of the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic on school-aged children, specifically ages 3 - 12. Particularly, we are interested in the potential impact of primary instruction settings disruptions (e.g., pre-school, elementary school) on the mental health, cognitive, social, and emotional development of children. Empirical data would aid in balancing health risks for various public health mitigation strategies affecting children in the current pandemic as well as inform how to both be prepared and respond to future public health emergencies, including pandemics and disaster scenarios.


School-aged children, like all people across the lifespan, are susceptible to the SARS-CoV2 virus as well as the co-occurring stressful and traumatic events that stem from the current COVID-19 pandemic. These events include illness of the child as well as their friends and family members, loss of life, financial changes for the family or community, uncertainty about the duration of the pandemic, limitations or changes in peer interactions, and of acute importance and relevance to this NOSI — primary instructional setting disruptions. Before the pandemic, most children spent a significant portion of time in a primary instructional setting outside of the home. Schools and the after-school and extracurricular programs, formally linked to these institutions, play a critical role in children’s educational achievement, socialization, health, and well-being. The ability of families to replace these activities through the private sector (e.g., private music lessons, travel sports teams) varies by individual and community characteristics such as socioeconomic status and geography (e.g., rural/suburban/urban). It is unknown if 1) shifting or alternating in person and virtual instruction impacts relationships with educators, teachers, mentor figures (such as tutors, coaches, music or art instructors) or peers, 2) how the absence, reduction, or modification of external interventions to maintain healthy children (e.g., special education services, child abuse identification and reporting, mental health interventions, physical health and wellness programs, school-based and extramural physical activity and extracurricular programming), as a result of disruptions in primary instructional settings, impacts a child’s mental health, or 3) which children might respond best to virtual or in person learning in terms of their mental health risk.

Public health mitigation efforts have been differentially applied across jurisdictions. School closures remain variable and school status decisions by policymakers, teachers, and parents have minimal empirical data to weigh the risks for health related to virus exposure as well as mental health outcomes. Although there is an evolving understanding of the risk of the SARS-CoV2 virus for various at-risk groups of people, the implications of school closures are less understood in the context of the pandemic. This NOSI focuses on a gap in research on COVID-19 impacts on pre-school and early childhood education settings and school-aged children defined here as ages 3 - 12.

Researchers with access to multi-jurisdictional data or school districts across states to allow comparisons are encouraged to consider the variety of data sources that may exist or be accessed to inform study designs. Consideration of particularly vulnerable groups, including those with pre-existing mental illness or behavioral problems, intellectual and developmental disabilities, learning disorders and other disabilities, resource inequity, and populations with economic and health disparities are of interest.

Research Objectives

In order to significantly improve our understanding of the impact of primary instruction setting disruptions on the mental health, cognitive, social and emotional development of school-aged children, NIMH is encouraging the submission of applications to address the following areas of scientific interest:

  • Research that leverages existing cohorts to examine the impact of distance, hybrid, and in person learning on children’s mental health as well as social, emotional and cognitive development and the factors that mitigate or exacerbate the impact of school disruptions on outcomes (e.g., individual, school, or policy level factors including duration of distance learning) that may inform future school policy or interventions to mitigate disruptions.
  • Research that leverages large, well-characterized samples to examine the impact of primary instruction setting disruptions on self-injurious behaviors, suicide ideation and attempt.
  • Research accessing and leveraging public and/or commercial educational, surveillance, and mental health data and/or private EHR data to identify populations at high risk for functional impairment, cognitive deficits, delay or decline, and mental health risk in the context of primary instruction setting disruptions.
  • Research on the impact of state, local, federal, and guild-specific guidelines and policies for school operation status, and how changes in those policies impact mental health, social and emotional development, and related impacts on cognitive development. Both risks and benefits of instruction setting (i.e., virtual, hybrid, remote learning) are of interest.
  • Using existing data, research on the impact of universal or indicated interventions to prevent anticipated mental health impacts of school disruption and loss of social connection in childhood.
  • Research on the disruption of special services for children in school, including mental health, nutrition programs, or after-school programs formally linked in the context of school disruptions, that may impact mental health or social development.
  • Research to determine the feasibility and utility of technology-enabled screening to identify/triage children at different developmental stages who may be in need of behavioral health support within the context of disrupted schooling.

NICHD Interests
In addition to many areas of interest in the NOSI, NICHD has several additional interests.

NICHD has particular interest in COVID-19-related research on vulnerable populations falling within the NICHD scientific mission area, including toddlers, children, and young adolescents (e.g., ages 3-12) with physical and/or intellectual disabilities; children who are homeless or in foster care, or children who have been involved in the welfare or justice systems; and children living in disadvantaged communities or attending high-poverty schools (as measured by indicators such as distance to nearest public library, neighborhood segregation index, Title I designation, etc.).

Additional research topics of interest to NICHD that fall within the scope of this NOSI include, but are not limited to:

  • The impact of the absence of teachers, early childhood educators, mentors (e.g., coaches, music and art instructors), and peers on children’s attachment relationships, social competence, social networks, friendships, bullying or peer-victimization experiences, and social isolation.
  • Studies on how changes in social opportunities and interactions, as a result of school disruptions, impact children’s emotion development more broadly, including emotional competence and intelligence, emotion expression, and emotion regulation.
  • Studies of how changes in social opportunities and interactions, as a result of school disruptions, impact children’s social cognition, moral development (e.g. including moral reasoning), and empathy.
  • Studies of the digital divide - children and families without reliable access to the internet while schools and libraries are closed, and impacts on children’s wellbeing more broadly (e.g., happiness and positive emotions, optimism).
  • Studies on how increased screen time, digital media use and rapid conversion to homeschooling/distance learning impact early childhood social and emotional development and related cognitive sequelae, peer interactions and family functioning.
  • Studies examining risk factors, resilience and coping for children experiencing multiple stressors (e.g., health, economic and emotional) and the short and long-term sequelae for child social and emotional functioning.
  • Studies examining how the absence of primary instruction-based resources (e.g, special education services, child abuse identification and reporting, mental health interventions and access to therapy and therapists, physical health and wellness programs, school-based and extramural physical activity and extracurricular programming) impact children’s mental health, cognitive, social and emotional development.

Research that takes advantage of existing cohorts and/or uses available datasets is expected. Research that seeks to establish new data collection efforts should specifically address how they will be able to address the effects of various models of schooling given the changing facts regarding the pandemic and school systems that may be mostly open now and in the near future. Applications submitted in response to this NOSI are expected to use established Common Data Elements for mental health for any new data collection and include a plan for data sharing with the application. Harmonization with large ongoing data sets that will extend the age range and allow comparisons are also prioritized (e.g., ABCD and various CDC surveillance efforts). Researchers are encouraged to consider how the data to be analyzed may disentangle the contributions of school disruptions from other sources of stress including changes in family or community economic impacts (including any food or housing insecurity/instability), child’s or family member’s exposure to, diagnosis of, or lingering effects of COVID-19 or MIS-C, child’s exposure to violence in the home, media exposure including potential peer victimization via electronic media, and disruptions in healthcare.

Application and Submission Information

This notice applies to due dates on or after June 5, 2019 and subsequent receipt dates through September 8, 2022. 

Submit applications for this initiative using one of the following funding opportunity announcements (FOAs) or any reissues of these announcement through the expiration date of this notice.

  • PA-20-185  - NIH Research Project Grant (Parent R01 Clinical Trial Not Allowed)

All instructions in the SF424 (R&R) Application Guide and the funding opportunity announcement used for submission must be followed, with the following additions:

  • For funding consideration, applicants must include “NOT-MH-21-225” (without quotation marks) in the Agency Routing Identifier field (box 4B) of the SF424 R&R form. Applications without this information in box 4B will not be considered for this initiative.

Applications nonresponsive to terms of this NOSI will not be considered for the NOSI initiative.


Please direct all inquiries to the contacts in Section VII of the listed funding opportunity announcements with the following additions/substitutions:

Scientific/Research Contact(s)

Susan Borja, PhD
National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH)

Telephone: 301-443-1252


Parisa Parsafar, PhD
Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD)
Telephone: 301-594-2014


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