Nearly a third of 730 parents surveyed in early June about their back-to-school plans for their school-aged children amid the COVID-19 pandemic said they probably or definitely will choose distance learning over in-person instruction, according to a study published today in JAMA Pediatrics.
While 31% of participants in the national convenience sample indicated they would keep their child home, 49% said they probably or definitely will opt for in-person school. Parents choosing remote learning tended to have lower incomes (38% with annual incomes less than $50,000 vs 21% with incomes of $100,000 to $150,000), be unemployed (40%, vs 26% employed), and had a flexible job schedule (33%, vs 19% with inflexible jobs).
Parents with a child in grades 3 through 5 were more likely than parents of high schoolers to keep their child home, and those with younger children or with jobs also anticipated more challenges associated with distance learning.
Confidence in healthcare systems, schools
Worries about COVID-19 infection or lack of effective treatments (40%) and fear of the coronavirus-associated multisystem inflammatory syndrome (34%) were also linked to plans for distance learning. Those with some college education or less reported lower levels of fear of COVID-19 and the syndrome, while those with a susceptible household member were more afraid of both.
Hispanic parents were more likely to fear COVID-19 but not multisystem inflammatory syndrome, whereas those with a younger child were more afraid of the syndrome than the coronavirus.
Overall, only 29% of parents said they were confident or very confident that their child's school could prevent COVID-19 transmission; parents with graduate degrees had the most confidence. Thirty-five percent of parents said they thought the school could provide social interaction at an adequate physical distance, and 45% said their school could meet their child's academic needs with a modified schedule.
Of the 730 parents, 53% were women, 28% were black, 27% were Hispanic, 57% could work from home, and 44% said they had a flexible work schedule. Seventy-one percent of children attended public school, and 34% had one or more household members with an underlying medical condition.
Applying an 'equity lens'
The researchers noted that while school closures could slow spread of COVID-19, they are also associated with individual, familial, and societal costs such as inadequate academic instruction, missed opportunities for in-person experiences, parental stress, and low work productivity. These costs tend to be particularly high for low-income families, who may lack computers and high-speed Internet, strong school support for in-home learning, and flexible work schedules.
The authors urged schools to act now to address parental concerns—particularly of those with low incomes and jobs with rigid schedules—and provide home-based resources for those choosing that format.
"Schools or school districts should clearly communicate to families the level of home learning support that will be provided (if any), along with the competencies and requirements for developmentally appropriate homeschooling in the absence of school support," they wrote. "Structural barriers, such as lack of workplace flexibility and potential school-level inequities in implementation of preventive measures, must be acknowledged and addressed where possible."
In a commentary in the same journal, Danielle Dooley, MD, MPhil, Joelle Simpson, MD, MPH, and Nathaniel Beers, MD, MPA, of Children's National Hospital in Washington, DC, observed that the survey was administered in English only and thus does not reflect the needs of non–English-speaking families.
They said that school districts must apply an "equity lens to assess the differential impacts of each option on their students and families" and also consider the implications of school closures for families with children who have disabilities or complex medical conditions, who may rely heavily on school resources.
"Schools will need to contemplate additional safety measures to ensure students with disabilities and their families, as well as the teachers serving them, can feel able to safely consider returning to school in person," they wrote. "Schools will also need to contemplate alternative instructional strategies to allow improved access to virtual learning environments for students with disabilities and their families."