When the emerging COVID-19 pandemic caused most U.S. schools to close and transition to distance learning last spring, many parents were forced into new roles as proxy educators for their children.
A new study co-authored by O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs Assistant Professor Alberto Ortega, published today in Educational Researcher, a peer-reviewed journal of the American Educational Research Association, found that roughly 51 percent of all parents surveyed in March and April had at least one child struggling with distance learning and were themselves experiencing significantly higher levels of stress.
Ortega and co-authors found that parents with at least one student struggling with distance learning were 19 percent more likely than other parents to report anxiety. These parents also were 22 percent more likely to experience depression and were 20 percent more likely to have trouble sleeping.
In addition, they were 20 percent more likely to feel worried and 23 percent more likely to have little interest or pleasure in doing things.
“Students’ academic success ultimately relies on their parents’ emotional health during this fragile time, which sets the learning environment for their children,” Ortega said. “Without proper support, both parents and students will likely suffer.”
Prior research has shown that stressful learning environments tend to stifle students’ academic achievement.
“It is not clear when schools will return to normal,” said Ortega. “Since students will likely rely on some form of distance learning for the foreseeable future, parents could face longer periods of elevated stress and mental health disruptions. Addressing parents’ emotional needs during the pandemic has become essential for students’ success.”
The disparity in mental health distress resulting from having at least one child struggling with distance learning seems to be independent of income, the number of children in the home, and the number of days their school had been closed at the time of the survey, which was administered to more than 3,300 U.S. households.
Ortega’s co-authors on the study included Cassandra R. Davis (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill), Jevay Grooms (Howard University), and Edward Vargas (Arizona State University).