: COVID-19 school closures took a toll on children’s mental health — and made parents more likely to lose their temper

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There’s good reason why parents dread school closures.

Daily disruptions to care and school have persisted during the first nearly two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, and governments across the world are once again weighing the pros and cons of closing schools as the highly contagious omicron variant blazes its trail.

When looking at the unseen costs of school closures and remote schoolwork on families, the fall of 2020 is a good place to start. During that time, families reported a disruption on 24% of days, according to a paper published this week by researchers at Duke University and Columbia University and distributed by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

“Families with children in remote schooling experienced more frequent disruption than families with children in in-person care or school,” the paper found. “For all families, care or school disruptions strongly predicted worse child behavior, more negative parental mood, and increased likelihood of losing temper and punishment.”

A school or care disruption during the pandemic increased the share of children who were uncooperative “some or a lot today” by 9.1 percentage points, “a striking increase” from a base rate of 14.1%, the paper said.

The effect was significantly larger for non-Hispanic white children (11.9 percentage points) than for non-Hispanic Black children (6.8 percentage points), it added, though “the effects were significantly different from zero and substantial in size for all race/ethnic groups.”

Public-health and education workers have long been concerned about the effects of school closures on children’s wellbeing.

As Henrietta Fore, the executive director of UNICEF, wrote in Barron’s: “The devastating impact school closures have had on the lives of children, their families and communities is abundantly clear. And the consequences of the choices made in relation to schools will be felt in our economies and societies for decades to come.”

‘Parents were more likely to lose their temper with their child on a day with a disruption.’

Parents in the study were asked to complete 30 days of daily surveys, tracking their own mood and their children’s behavior. It included a nationally representative sample of 679 hourly service-sector worker parents of a young child from a major U.S. city. Half were non-Hispanic Black, 23% were Hispanic, and 18% were non-Hispanic white.

“Parents were more likely to lose their temper with their child on a day with a disruption,” according to the authors, Anna Gassman-Pines, John Fitz-Henley II and Jane Leer from the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University, and Elizabeth Ananat from Barnard College at Columbia University.

“The pattern was similar for effects on the probability that the child
appeared to be sad or worried some or a lot today, with an overall effect of 6 percentage points (nearly doubling the base rate of 6.7%),” they wrote.

The overall increase was a statistically significant 5.6 percentage points from a base rate of 7%. Effects were large and significant for all racial and ethnic groups: 8.6 percentage points for non-Hispanic white parents, and 4.4 percentage points for non-Hispanic Black parents.

“Parents were also more likely to punish their child on a day with a disruption, with an increase of 4.5 percentage points from a base rate of 5.8%,” they added.

Many teachers unions, meanwhile, have advocated for a return to remote learning. They have called for more government guidance on safety protocols to keep them safe.

Earlier this month, Chicago school leaders canceled classes after failing to reach an agreement with the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) over COVID-19 safety protocols in the nation’s third-largest school district, the Associated Press reported. Teachers wanted to return to remote learning as coronavirus cases surged.

“CTU leadership, you’re not listening,” Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot said. “The best, safest place for kids to be is in school. Students need to be back in person as soon as possible. That’s what parents want. That’s what the science supports. We will not relent.”

In a controversial move last month, U.S. health officials reduced isolation times from 10 to five days for Americans who test positive for COVID-19 but have no symptoms, and also cut the time that close contacts need to self-quarantine.

After those five days, Americans should still wear a mask around others for another five days, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said.

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