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Prolonged Virtual Schooling Puts Kids and Parents at Risk

March 23, 2021 by Reece Nations
Students wearing face masks work on computers at Tibbals Elementary School in Murphy, Texas. (AP Photo/LM Otero, File)

ATLANTA – Parents adapting to prolonged bouts of remote learning were more likely to report emotional stress and concerns for their children, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey released Thursday. 

The survey was conducted nationwide by telephone and online from Oct. 8 through Nov. 13, 2020, and consisted of a sampling of 1,561 parents with children age 5 to 12 attending a public or private school during the 2020–21 school year. Three unweighted categories regarding the mode of schooling were implemented: in-person, virtual, and combined. 

Parents of children receiving virtual instruction were more likely to report conflicts with working and providing childcare, job stability concerns, emotional distress, difficulty sleeping and loss of work than their counterparts with children receiving in-person instruction. Parents dealing with remote learning also indicated their children experienced decreased physical activity, less in-person and virtual time with their friends, and worsened mental or emotional health. 

“Changes in modes of instruction have presented psychosocial stressors to children and parents that can increase risks to mental health and well-being and might exacerbate educational and health disparities,” the text of the CDC report stated.

The final sample included 1,290 parents of children, 1,169 (92.9%) of whom were enrolled in public school and 121 (7.1%) enrolled in private school. Among the sample, 45.7% reported that their child received virtual instruction, 30.9% received in-person instruction, and 23.4% received combined instruction. 

The survey examined eight different indicators of parental well-being and six of the indicators differed significantly by the mode of instruction received by the children. Across the board, children exclusively receiving remote learning, and their parents, fared worse than their counterparts receiving either in-person schooling or combined in-person and remote schooling. 

“For 11 of 17 stress and well-being indicators concerning child mental health and physical activity and parental emotional distress, findings were worse for parents of children receiving virtual or combined instruction than were those for parents of children receiving in-person instruction,” the text of the report stated. “Children not receiving in-person instruction and their parents might experience increased risk for negative mental, emotional, or physical health outcomes and might need additional support to mitigate pandemic effects. Community-wide actions to reduce COVID-19 incidence and support mitigation strategies in schools are critically important to support students’ return to in-person learning.” 

Black, Hispanic, and multiracial parents were more likely to report their children were receiving virtual instruction than White parents. “Further research is needed” to determine whether virtual instruction has disproportionately impacted health outcomes among racial and ethnic minorities and their communities, the CDC report said. 

These findings preceded the CDC’s revised guidelines for in-person K-12 schooling operations. In its phased approach to transmission avoidance, the CDC presents new strategies for schools to return to safely providing in-person instruction with consistent use of prevention strategies; including masking requirements and physical distancing. 

CDC Director Rochelle Walensky indicated last month that minimal COVID-19 transmission is occurring within the schools, “especially when masking and distancing” are present, TWN previously reported. A growing number of public officials are asking for schools to be reopened, citing expert analysis of the benefits of in-person learning even as emerging variants of the virus complicate the nation’s return to normalcy. 

The CDC also recommends continual cleaning, handwashing and respiratory etiquette, and contact tracing along with isolation and quarantine in schools to curb the virus’s spread. Additionally, physical distancing should be maximized to at least three feet where the typical six feet of recommended space is not available. 

“Implementation of layered prevention strategies will need to continue until we better understand potential transmission among people who received a COVID-19 vaccine and there is more vaccination coverage in the community,” the CDC guidelines state. “In addition, vaccines are not yet approved for use in children under 16 years old. For these reasons, even after teachers and staff are vaccinated, schools need to continue prevention measures for the foreseeable future, including requiring masks in schools and physical distancing.” 

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