More than 30 percent of parents plan to keep their children at home if schools reopen in the fall, according to a new study published in the journal JAMA Pediatrics.
For the study, involving 730 U.S. parents of school-age children (ages 5 to 17), researchers asked parents whether they planned to either opt for distance learning at home or send their kids to in-person school, if available, and looked at what factors influenced their decisions.
More than 30 percent of parents reported they will “probably or definitely” keep their child home if schools open for in-person instruction, while nearly 50 percent reported they would “probably or definitely” send their child to school this fall. Several factors influenced these decisions, from a family’s socioeconomic status to job flexibility to fears about COVID-19 spreading in schools.
For parents who favored home-based learning for their children, “Some of the biggest factors were their income and having a flexible job with a schedule under their control,” lead author of the study Emily Kroshus, a research associate professor in the department of pediatrics at the University of Washington, tells Yahoo Life.
Kroshus adds that parents were also more likely to plan to keep younger kids — grades 3 through 5 versus high-schoolers — at home “despite expert guidance suggesting that this age group may be least well-served by online learning and may benefit the most from in-person socialization.”
Household income plays a role
Families with a lower household income of under $50,000 per year were more likely (38 percent) to plan on home-based learning, compared to study participants with household incomes of $100,000-$150,000 per year (21 percent). This is somewhat surprising given that, according to the study authors, socioeconomically disadvantaged families tend to have the least resources for schooling at home (such as high-speed internet) and the least support for home learning from their child's school.
However, there may be several reasons why those families plan on home-based learning. For example, the study authors note that lower-income families are more likely to live in a multigenerational household and have a family member with a chronic health condition, which makes them more vulnerable to COVID-19.
The parents in the study “may have wanted to keep their kids home perhaps… because they may live in communities of high viral transmission weight, which we have seen has disproportionately impacted low-income and Black and Brown communities,” Dr. Uché Blackstock, an emergency medicine physician, Yahoo Life medical contributor and chief executive officer of Advancing Health Equity, tells Yahoo Life. “Here in New York City, we are seeing the opposite likely because our community transmission rate is quite low. I would say that the critical factors for parents to consider about whether to send children to school is the community transmission rate and the resources available for schools to enforce basic preventive measures.”
Jack Schneider, an assistant professor of education at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, tells Yahoo Life: “Lower family income in this study may be a proxy for having only one parent working. In such a case, concerns about safety would override complications around parental work schedules.”
While the study didn’t directly assess the benefits of having a flexible job, Kroshus says the advantages would likely include “having supervision for the child, and being able to pause or adjust other activities in response to their child's emotional or academic needs, which may vary on a day-to-day basis.”
Adds Schneider: “The main difficulty that parents ran into last spring was finding the time to work with their children while also doing their jobs. Single parents and those with rigid work hours were placed in an impossible position in having to choose between supporting their children’s schoolwork or completing their own work assignments. If resources this year are limited, they should be triaged in a way that meets the most immediate needs of single parents and parents who are essential workers.”
Nearly 80 percent of employed study participants reported having at least some job flexibility. “However, it is possible that a large subset of jobs with temporarily enhanced flexibility [will] return to more traditional schedule demands if there is an option for in-person school attendance, forcing employees to choose between protecting their jobs and minimizing their family’s perceived COVID-19 risk,” wrote the study authors.
Having a flexible job was distinguished in the study from having a job that can be done from home, which was not associated with a greater likelihood of home-based learning.
The researchers also found that having more control of a work schedule is more prevalent in senior white-collar jobs, meaning families that are less socioeconomically advantaged “likely will be less able to make the choice about in-person schooling that works best for their family,” according to the study authors, who note that “corporate, local, or federal policies supporting flexibility after schools reopen may help protect those at greatest health risk, particularly those with socioeconomic disadvantage.”
Coronavirus fears influence parents
Parental fears about COVID-19 also understandably influenced their decisions about their children’s school attendance. Parents “highly worried about COVID-19 and multisystem inflammatory syndrome,” along with having a medically-vulnerable household member, were more likely to do in-home learning. The study also revealed that “few parents were confident that their child’s school would be able to prevent students from spreading COVID-19.”
Blackstock says that the decision to send kids to school in the midst of a pandemic is “deeply personal,” adding, “Currently, there are no 'no-risk' situations.”
To keep students safe, “children need to be able wear a mask for the full day, practice social distancing, and wash their hands frequently,” says Blackstock. “However that’s just one factor. The other factor is that schools do need to have adequate ventilation in place in all classrooms and they need to have plans in place in case someone tests positive.”
She adds: “But most importantly, we need to have a situation where both educators and families feel comfortable sending their children to school, and the fact is, in the majority of cities and towns in this country, the transmission rate is too high (above 3 to 5 percent) and the resources are too inadequate to be able to reopen school safely.”
The study authors write that it’s “critical that structural barriers to families making the choice that works best for them are acknowledged and remedied where possible to minimize worsening disparities.” They add that, given how many parents are strongly considering keeping their children home, “schools and school districts must consider how they can feasibly meet the needs of this potentially sizable fraction of the population.”
For the latest coronavirus news and updates, follow along at https://news.yahoo.com/coronavirus. According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please reference the CDC’s and WHO’s resource guides.
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