Parents, children and experts are still concerned about children returning to school amid surging Covid-19 cases, the prevalence of the Delta variant, lax safety measures and the inability of children younger than 12 to get vaccinated, according to a new poll.
Looking at the 2021-2022 school year, parents report that their children’s worries include the possibility of virtual school (again), feeling uncomfortable around large groups of kids, being behind on academics and getting along with friends, according to a C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll on Children’s Health published Monday.
The survey and report are based on responses researchers collected in June 2021 from 1,669 US-based parents with at least one child between ages 7 and 18.
The pandemic left a mark on students
The pandemic “wreaked havoc on many families’ school experience last year, with parents and kids navigating unpredictable changes in the learning environment and new social, emotional and academic challenges,” said Mott Poll codirector Sarah Clark, a research scientist in pediatrics at the University of Michigan, in a news release.
“Our report suggests that those experiences left a mark on students and families, influencing their views and concerns about the upcoming school year.”
More than a third of parents said at least one of four factors – academic performance, connections with teachers, relationships with other students and general attitude toward school – was better for their child from 2020-2021 when compared with the previous school year.
Yet 56% of parents rated at least one of these aspects as worse for their child last year than in 2019-2020, especially if most of 2020-2021 was done virtually. Parents also said helping their children was made difficult because of factors that included their own stress, children’s stress and uncertainty about e-learning.
School should be considered essential
“Children learn from in-person interactions and in relationships. When that is taken away with no sense of when it’s going to be restored, that’s extremely challenging for anyone, but especially for children,” said CNN Medical Analyst Dr. Leana Wen, an emergency physician and visiting professor of health policy and management at the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health.
“In-person, full-time instruction needs to be understood as essential, which is why we need to work on reducing risk during this essential activity,” Wen said. “No one would question that these data are reflective on reality, because this is the lived reality for so many people.”
The poll also reflected a challenge some parents are facing in terms of balancing safety concerns and priorities regarding social and educational development.
Although more than half of parents want to know how many students and teachers aren’t vaccinated, only 19% of parents said details on students’ and teachers’ vaccination status would affect their decisions regarding whether their child attends in-person school.
This seeming contradiction goes back to schools being essential, Wen said.
“If you have something that people perceive as being essential, even if one of the ideal safety metrics is not met, they will still do it – not because it’s safe, but because it’s essential,” Wen said.
Covid-19 vaccination of school personnel and other precautions are “extremely important,” she added, “but just because we don’t have them all, doesn’t mean that we’re not going to send our kids to in-person school.”
“Parents may also believe that they can minimize that risk by having their child get a Covid vaccine,” Clark said.
Despite ongoing pandemic concerns, not all the poll’s findings were negative. Some 41% of parents reported their child is more enthusiastic about this school year, 16% answered less enthusiasm and 43% said the same excitement as the last year. And around half of parents feel confident they can help their child with school, resilience through difficulties or peer problems.
Fears of the unforeseen and how to cope
Spurring the worries about a possible return to virtual learning were some families’ barriers to obtaining technology and/or creating a functioning, comfortable learning environment during the last school year, according to the report.
“For some children, the decreased level of interaction with teachers also required more supervision or assistance from parents throughout the school day – which could be especially challenging for those working from home themselves,” Clark said.
With Covid-19 cases surging in many parts of the US, the report said, parents should consider helping their child emotionally and logistically prepare for a sudden return to e-learning – one method could be devising a plan based on what did and didn’t work last year.
For children stressed about safety risks, parents should learn what precautions the school has in place, then discuss them together, the researchers suggested.
Families can also discuss how children might navigate moments when lots of students might be crowded together during lunch or class changes. If kids had trouble with certain subjects last year, parents can ask teachers for advice on how their child can catch up via supplementary work or a tutor’s help.
Additionally, “some children and teens who may have avoided social anxieties or conflicts during virtual school may also need support transitioning back to traditional in-person school,” Clark said.
For children worried about making friends, parents could try to arrange lower-risk meetings or playdates, Wen said, depending on the kids’ age.
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For children excited about returning to school, parents can emphasize the fun aspects children can anticipate, Wen added – but they should also mentally prepare their children for possible pandemic regressions.
“By and large, kids understand probably better than adults about how quickly things have been changing and evolving, so setting that expectation is important,” Wen said. “Talk to kids about the different possibilities of what might happen when. As in, ‘If somebody tests positive, this might happen. If schools close, this is for how long and that’s why it’s important.’
“Even on a daily basis, going through scenarios can actually help to provide a bit more certainty in an uncertain time.”