Student Well-Being

Remote Learning Erodes Students’ Well-Being, CDC Parent Survey Suggests

By Stephen Sawchuk — March 18, 2021 3 min read
Paul Hendricks, 10, received some guidance from his mother Anne, as he worked his first day of fifth grade from his bedroom, Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2020 in St. Paul, Minn. Hendricks attends Randolph Heights.

Parents whose children were learning in a remote or partly remote setting were more likely to report that their children spent diminishing time outside, in physical activity, or interacting with friends, than parents whose children attended school in person.

They were also more likely to say their children’s mental or emotional health was worse, a new study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows.

And the parents themselves are under similar pressures, the nationally representative survey released on Thursday reveals.

Forty-three percent of parents in remote learning reported losing time from their own jobs, compared to 31 percent of those in full-time, in-person learning. They were also twice as likely to report child-care challenges as those receiving in-person instruction.

The findings, while not surprising, are among early data points indicating that the nation’s unprecedented experiment with remote learning isn’t just having major academic consequences. It has also reshaped both socialization patterns and family living situations for a generation of students—with consequences that are likely to be felt for years.

“One of my fears is that we’re going to be so focused on recuperating those learning losses, we’re going to forget that students lost others things—like their ability to be social with their friends and get physical education,” said Deborah Temkin, the vice president of youth and education research for Child Trends, a nonprofit research group, who was not involved in the research.

The findings also have implications for media coverage, which has been largely dominated by the politics of school reopening, even as other advocates deplore the comparative lack of attention paid to improving students’ remote learning experiences—thinking through creative ways of maintaining peer connections, activities, and sports, for instance.

The survey was conducted in October and early November of last year when a second surge in infection rates prompted many districts to reduce in-person learning or back away from it altogether.

More districts are resuming in-person learning, but disparities exist

Among the results, the survey found that parents of children in all-remote learning were more likely than parents of children experiencing other modes of instruction to report that their children spent less time outside, with friends in person, or engaging in physical activity.

Remote-learning parents reported their children also spent less time interacting with friends virtually just for fun than parents of those in in-person schooling—possibly a function of “Zoom fatigue” for students who are spending hours of screen time accessing their classes.

A quarter of parents whose students were in all-remote or partly remote learning said they felt their child’s mental or emotional health had declined, compared to 16 percent of those in in-person schooling. (Findings specifically related to depression or anxiety, however, were not statistically different among groups.)

The findings also showed that parents were facing new burdens, too, over child care, job stability, and lost work—all of which probably filter down and increase stress for children.

There are some limitations to the findings. For one, they’re limited to families of children ages 5 to 12—right at the age where peer socialization becomes increasingly important. That’s especially the case for LGBTQ youth and others who are able to access additional supports at school they may not have at home, Temkin noted.

The findings are also filtered through the parent rather than being direct measures of children’s social and emotional health.

And remote learning is clearly serving some parents and students well: In a New York Times essay, writer Melinda Anderson profiled Black families for whom remote learning provided a refuge from racism at school. (The CDC survey does not break out results by demographic groups.)

While many more districts have resumed in-person schooling since the time of the survey, some large districts, including the nation’s second largest, Los Angeles, continue to educate most students remotely.

In others, even while elementary students have returned, high schoolers continue to be all or mostly remote; that’s the case in the Chicago district, which recently said high school students can return April 19.

The survey was based on a sample of nearly 1,300 parents and guardians of children ages 5 to 12.

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