Dad and mom wired, some turned to medicine, alcohol: CDC

A student raises her hand in her virtual classroom at Roxbury YMCA in Boston on September 21, 2020.

Suzanne Kreiter | Boston Globe | Getty Images

Parents with children stuck at home during the pandemic will tell you how stressed they are, but now the CDC has evidence that virtual school is taking a real physical and emotional toll – by driving some parents into drugs and alcohol to deal with it.

The new results, released Thursday by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suggest that virtual learning “carries more risks than face-to-face teaching regarding the mental and emotional health of children and parents and some health-promoting behaviors, “said the researchers.

Schools throughout the spring closed quickly last spring as the coronavirus spread rapidly across the US, forcing millions of students and their parents to unexpectedly grapple with online learning year-round. While some states have made extensive efforts to get children back into class, others are struggling to respond to safety concerns from parents and educators.

Increased stress

The CDC interviewed 1,290 parents or guardians of school-age children who were up to 12 years old between October and November. Among the participants, 45.7% said that their children had received virtual lessons, 30.9% in person, and 23.4% of the children took part in a hybrid teaching program.

Overall, almost half (46.6%) of all parents reported increased stress, 16.5% said they consumed more drugs or alcohol, and 17.7% said that they had trouble sleeping due to the pandemic, among other things. Researchers found that across the board, children with children in full-time or part-time virtual learning programs had higher levels of suffering than parents with children in school.

More than half (54%) of parents with children stuck in a virtual school said they experienced increased emotional distress, 16.4% said they were increasingly using drugs or alcohol, and 21.6% said they were having trouble sleeping at night. These problems were less common among parents with children who attended school in person. Only 38.4% of these parents said they were more stressed, 13.7% said they used drugs or alcohol, and 12.9% said they had trouble sleeping at night.

Substance use

Increased substance use was most common among parents with children in hybrid learning programs – where students were virtual on some days and in class on other days – with 20.5% reporting increased use, researchers found.

Parents with children in virtual learning programs had also most likely lost their jobs, worried about job stability, faced childcare challenges, and experienced conflicts between their work and their children.

Virtual learning was also more difficult for students, researchers found.

More than half (62.9%) of parents with children who study from home stated that their children did less sport, 58% stated that they spent less time outdoors, 86.2% stated spending less time hanging out with friends in person, and 24.9% said their children’s mental or emotional health had deteriorated.

The results, which researchers said represent the broader US population, said virtual classes are more common among racial and ethnic minority parents. Further research is needed to determine whether distance learning has a disproportionately negative impact on these groups.

Disrupt services

“The pandemic disrupts many school-based services, increases parental responsibility and stress, and potentially affects the long-term health outcomes of parents and children,” wrote Jorge Verlenden, lead author of the study.

The CDC’s findings come because President Joe Biden makes reopening schools for personal learning a top priority for the first 100 days of his term in office.

On Wednesday, the Department of Health and Human Services announced that it will invest $ 10 billion from the recently passed stimulus package in Covid-19 tests for schools starting in April.

New school advice

Almost half of the K-12 students study in person five days a week, while another 30% go to school personally at least part of the time. This comes from recent data from Burbio, a service tracking plans to open schools. Almost 21% of students still only study online.

The CDC updated its safety guidelines for reopening schools on Friday and reduced its social distancing recommendations from 6 feet to 3 feet in most cases while everyone is wearing masks.

“CDC is committed to being at the forefront of science and to update our guidelines as new information becomes available,” said CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky in a statement. “Through safe, face-to-face tuition, our children gain access to vital social and mental health services that prepare them for the future, in addition to the education they need to be successful.”

Biden has urged states to allow all educators to be approved for vaccines by the end of March. Dr. White House chief medical officer Anthony Fauci on Wednesday said high school students may have access to a shot before the fall school year, while younger elementary school-age students will likely have to wait until the first quarter of 2022.

– CNBC’s Will Feuer contributed to this report.

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