U-M: Families worried about more pandemic disruptions heading into new school year

National poll conducted by University of Michigan’s C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital

FILE - In this Aug. 17, 2021, file photo, wearing masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19, elementary school students line up to enter school for the first day of classes in Richardson, Texas. As COVID-19 cases surge, a majority of Americans say they support mask mandates for students and teachers in K-12 schools, but their views are sharply divided along political lines. (AP Photo/LM Otero, File) (Lm Otero, Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

ANN ARBOR – Families are worried about the looming impact the COVID-19 pandemic will have on students as schools prepare to reopen, according to a new poll by the University of Michigan.

The University of Michigan Health C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll on Children’s Health found that parents are most worried about a potential repeat of virtual learning, academic gaps, vaccination rates among teachers and students and socializing with friends.

“COVID 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,” Mott Poll co-director Sarah Clark said in a statement. “Our report suggests that those experiences left a mark on students and families, influencing their views and concerns about the upcoming school year.”

The nationally representative poll received responses from 1,669 parents who have at least one child between the ages of 7-18.

Virtual school worries

The 2020-2021 school year was an extreme shift for all students, whether that meant they began studying virtually or remained at school but with substantial COVID safety protocols in place.

According to the poll, parents whose children studied virtually rated more elements of the previous school year as worse than parents whose children were mostly learning in school buildings.

The aspects that parents rated worse included academic performance, connections with teachers, relationships with other students and general attitude.

On the other hand, one third of parents responded that at least one of the aspects listed above improved for their child over the past year.

Just over one quarter of parents said their child is worried about a repeat virtual school year -- a concern Mott experts say is warranted considering the surge in delta variant cases around the country and some schools already rolling back to virtual.

“Establishing a successful virtual learning environment was challenging for many families,” Clark said in a statement. “This may have been particularly true for those with technical barriers, students with special needs and those whose home environments didn’t offer quiet and comfortable spaces to learn.

“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.”

Academic and social concerns

On top of virtual learning concerns, 24% of parents said their child worries about feeling comfortable in large groups of students, 22% said being behind in academics was a major concern and 22% said getting along with friends was another source of stress.

“It’s likely that many children may need time and additional support to catch up in some academic areas that they did not fully grasp in the last school year,” Clark said in a statement. “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.”

Despite this, many parents reported feeling very confident that they will be able to help their child succeed in bouncing back and dealing with peer issues heading into the new school year.

Forty-one percent of parents said their child is more enthusiastic about the upcoming school year while 16% reported being less enthusiastic and 43% said they are feeling about the same.

Vaccination rates

Roughly three in five parents of middle schoolers and high schoolers said their child would feel safer going to school if the majority of students and teachers received the COVID vaccine. Most families responded they would like to know how many school community members are not vaccinated.

Read: U-M poll: Parents split on COVID vaccine for young children

However, only one in five said vaccination rate information would impact their decision to have their child learn in-person.

“Many families would feel safer knowing their school has a high vaccination rate,” Clark said in a statement. “But some may feel that the potential negative impacts of not attending in-person school outweigh risks from unvaccinated individuals. Parents may also believe that they can minimize that risk by having their child get a COVID vaccine.”

Clark suggested families ask school officials questions about their COVID mitigation strategies to help manage their expectations and prepare for the school year. The Centers of Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics as well as other health experts and organizations recommend everyone inside a K-12 school wear masks this year regardless of vaccination status.

“Parents will want to learn about school policies related to masks and social distancing, and then talk with their child about how to navigate the school environment to feel as safe as possible,” Clark said in a statement.