Children are lonely, parents are stressed: CDC study finds remote learning taking a devastating toll

WASHINGTON — Virtual school is fostering isolation in children and stress in parents, according to a new study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The findings confirm previous research into the deleterious emotional and physical effects of keeping children out of school.

“Virtual instruction might present more risks than does in-person instruction related to child and parental mental and emotional health,” the researchers said, adding that school systems and municipal governments will need to provide “supports” to address the burgeoning problem.

Lauren Choy
Lauren Choy, a sophomore at Boston Latin School, participates in her history class from home. (Erin Clark/Boston Globe via Getty Images)

The new coronavirus relief bill signed into law last week by President Biden includes nearly $130 billion for schools; some of those funds will be used, by many districts, to address the pandemic’s mental health effects.

Some physicians and public health experts have said that the emotional and cognitive effects of keeping schools closed are far greater than the danger of transmission inside schools, which the CDC has previously found does not occur as long as face masks are worn and other common-sense measures taken. As schools have remained closed in parts of the country, those alarms have grown louder. “The consequences of social isolation and school disruption for kids have been devastating,” wrote the pediatrician Hansa Bhargava last month, as many public school districts approached a year of fully or partially remote instruction.

The new study suggests that isolation and inactivity are key culprits in that crisis. Published on Thursday by the CDC, the findings were based on a survey of parents whose children either attended in-person instruction, took all their classes via computer or were participants in a so-called hybrid model that combines both remote and in-person instruction. It found that for both virtual and hybrid models, children were more isolated, spending less time with other children and outside. They also simply moved less. (The new study included children between the ages of 5 and 12.)

“These differences in physical activity are concerning,” the researchers wrote. They also noted that students of color were more likely to be engaged in remote learning at about twice the rate of white students, meaning that they were more likely to suffer from the psychological effects of learning from home than were their white counterparts.

These findings could be especially concerning to the parents of adolescents, who need to exercise in order to maintain mental health. High school students in some parts of the country could be learning from home well into the spring, in large part because of concerns that children’s apparent inability to either contract or transmit the coronavirus fades with age. Some districts have been more willing to return elementary school students to the classroom before tackling the more complex epidemiological and educational challenge that is high school.

Jordan Rodriguez with student
Jordan Rodriguez, director of the Mulberry Street Club in Reading, Pa., works with a second grader. (Ben Hasty/MediaNews Group/Reading Eagle via Getty Images)

Parents whose children attended remote school were twice as likely to tell the CDC that their children were moving less (62.9 percent of respondents) than parents whose children were back in the classroom five days a week (30.3 percent). While 58 percent of virtual-only parents said their children spent less time outside, only 27.4 of fully in-person parents said the same. (The experiences of parents with students in a hybrid environment tended to fall somewhere between the two poles.)

Parents whose children attended either virtual or remote learning were more likely to report that they noticed worsening mental and emotional health (24.9 percent for remote parents, 15.9 for in-person parents). However, parents did not report markedly higher levels of anxiety and depression among children attending fully or partially virtual schools. That could, however, merely reflect the lack of diagnostic expertise among parents answering the survey.

The survey included 1,290 parents, of whom 92 percent had children in public school. Forty-six percent of respondents had children in virtual-only school and 31 person had children attending school fully in person, while another 23 percent had children in a hybrid setting. The survey was conducted throughout October and November, when a greater share of students were engaged in remote instruction than are today.

About 20 percent of American students are still learning exclusively online, according to the data site Burbio.

The new study also described how the pandemic has increased parental responsibility and stress, with many parents — mothers in particular — having to now juggle work and schooling. Indeed, the parents of students in remote educational arrangements were more likely to say that they were worried about losing their jobs (26.6 percent to 15.2 percent) or figuring out the ever-shifting puzzle that is pandemic childcare (13.5 percent to 6.8 percent) than were parents with in-person children.

A first grade student
A first-grade student in Woodland, Wash. (Nathan Howard/Getty Images)

And whereas only 38 percent of parents with students back in the classroom said they experienced high or moderate emotional distress, that share jumped to 54 percent for parents with children learning from home.

“Parents of children receiving virtual instruction more frequently reported their own emotional distress,” the researchers wrote, describing a litany of ills those parents say they are suffering in greater degrees, including “difficulty sleeping, loss of work, concern about job stability, child care challenges, and conflict between working and providing child care.”

It could be years before researchers fully grasp the pandemic’s effect on the social fabric. Some believe that children are resilient enough to withstand months of what has been called, with some derision, “Zoom school.” Whether parents have such resilience is unclear, especially when the personal and professional stresses of the pandemic are combined with the stresses of remote learning.

Biden has vowed to open the majority of schools in the course of his first 100 days in office. Recalcitrant districts on the West Coast and in the Northeast are moving in that direction, but not quickly enough for some parents, who have loudly called for reopening schools in certain regions of the country.


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