Nearly one-third of parents plan to keep kids home this fall even if schools reopen: survey

School districts across the country are implementing policies to help safely reopen schools in the fall. 

But for many parents, it's not enough to alleviate their fears about the spread of the virus.

Nearly one-third of parents (31%) say they will probably or definitely keep their child home this fall if schools open for in-person instruction, according to a survey published in JAMA Pediatrics.

About half of parents surveyed (49%) said they would probably or definitely send their child to school if it opened in the fall, according to the survey conducted by researchers at Seattle Children's Research Institute and the University of Washington.

The survey results highlight the reality that while policy decisions about opening schools are made at the community and state level, families are separately making their own decisions, wrote lead researcher Emily Kroshus from the Center for Child Health, Behavior and Development at Seattle Children’s Research Institute.

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The survey of 730 parents found that 40% of families were more than moderately worried that they would catch the virus or that the health care system would not be able to protect their loved ones. More than a third were more than moderately worried about multi-system inflammatory syndrome that has been reported in children in connection with the the novel coronavirus.

Few parents were confident their child’s school would be able to prevent students from spreading COVID-19, according to the study, with only 29% reporting they were confident or very confident that school could prevent the spread of COVID-19.

About one-third of parents believe their child's school could provide enough social interaction for their child while enforcing social distancing and 45% report that schools could meet their child’s academic needs with a modified schedule.

Parent confidence in school practices will likely change as schools finalize and communicate what steps they will be taking to limit viral transmission, the researchers wrote.

Leading organizations, including the American Academy of Pediatrics and the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, have released age-specific guidance for school reopenings. 

"Regardless of what practices the school adopts, parent perceptions about whether they will be consistently implemented by their child’s school is likely also an important behavioral determinant," the researchers wrote. "More educated parents in the sample had greater confidence in their child’s school, potentially related to more positive prior experiences with their child’s school meeting student needs in other contexts."

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The survey results also indicate that socioeconomic factors such as household income and employment status play a large role in parents' plans about school attendance in the fall.

Families with a household income less than $50,000 per year were more likely to keep children home (38%) versus families with an annual income between $100,000 to $150,000. Of those families, only 21% indicated they would keep their kids home this fall.

Forty percent of parents who are unemployed said they would keep their children home this fall versus 26% of employed parents and 33% of parents with flexible jobs will not send kids to school versus 19% of parents with inflexible jobs, the survey found.

Parents who lack the ability to work from home on a flexible schedule may believe that home-based learning would be more challenging; such job flexibility is more likely among more affluent and educated parents, according to the researchers.

Schools need act soon to address parental concerns and provide options for what will be available for them should they opt to keep their child home, the researchers said.

Structural barriers, such as lack of workplace flexibility and potential school-level inequities in the implementation of preventive measures, must be acknowledged and addressed where possible. And school outreach to help families make decisions about school attendance should focus on addressing the concerns of families with low income.

Overcrowded and underfunded schools, more likely to be located in communities characterized by lower-income residents, may have more difficulty implementing social distancing and other recommended measures to limit viral transmission while maintaining developmentally appropriate instruction. Yet, families from these communities rely disproportionately on schools for meals and other resources and opportunities, such as physical activity and extracurricular activities.

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"Given the reality that many parents are strongly considering keeping their children home, schools and school districts must consider how they can feasibly meet the needs of this potentially sizeable fraction of the population," the researchers wrote.

The researchers also recommend that primary care clinicians need to provide support as trusted medical sources and talk to parents about the potential risks posed to their child and family by returning to school.

Policy makers also need to ensure that there are adequate resources provided to schools to meet parental expectations regarding personal protective equipment, social distancing, symptom checking, and other steps recommended by organizations such as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

"It is expected that school budgets will need to expand rather than contract as might be expected given current fiscal crises. Such steps are critical for all families to be able to equitably act on their preferences regarding school attendance," the researchers wrote.