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School’s Out for the Summer: Parents Worry about Social-Emotional Impacts of Closures

As the school year closes, parents are experiencing complex emotions: relief that the remote learning roller coaster has ended, gratitude for the educators who have worked tirelessly these last few months, and worry about the future. 

Parents worry—not only about the potential academic loss for students across the country, but about the social-emotional and mental health impacts. In a recent survey by Parents Union, 61 percent of parents indicated they worry about their children missing important social interactions at school or with friends, and 54 percent worry if their children will stay on track in school so they are ready for the next grade. 

CRPE interviewed 33 parents over the last month about their remote learning experiences: the message is consistent and clear and aligns with national parent surveys. Parents we spoke with are worried about the social-emotional impacts of this pandemic—the lack of social opportunities available to their children, and the mental health impacts. This concern was even stronger from families with students with disabilities. 

Social Opportunities

This spring, remote learning plans varied by district, and individual family experiences differed. For some of the parents we spoke with, we heard that schools did not provide any live instruction with very little peer and teacher interaction. Other kids had virtual meetings with teachers and sometimes with their peers, but these cannot replace in-person experiences. This is consistent with what we saw in our national database, where we found that only one out of three districts were providing instruction and only slightly more than a third required teachers to check in with students regularly.

Parents we interviewed shared examples of efforts to sustain connections between their children and school: virtual social-emotional lessons, facilitating online group projects, and online student life activities, such as talent shows. 

The reality, however, is that most schools were unable to deliver basic instruction in the spring—much less devise more creative methods to connect with students and families. And again, this summer, just 61 percent of school districts in our review are delivering programming at all, and most of that programming appears focused on credit recovery or reading and math interventions. But what we heard from parents is a strong need for enrichment opportunities for their children—ways for them to engage socially with their peers. Yet less than half of the school districts in our review are offering summer enrichment programming. 

Parents we interviewed wondered what they could do this summer to compensate for the lack of social interaction. Summer plans are cancelled. Summer jobs are nonexistent or hard to find. Summer camps are cancelled or are being held virtually. Parents described looking with despair at nearly blank summer calendars. 

Parents are struggling with how to help their kids maintain a social life when socialization can not happen face to face. Some of the parents we spoke with were gravely concerned about the amount of screentime their children had this spring, along with the long-term effects—something identified as a concern in the Learning Hero’s national survey of parents: 48 percent worried about the amount of time their children spent on screens. Very few schools have given parents guidance and suggestions for how to limit screen time, leaving parents on their own to try to put limits in place. A few parents mentioned the dilemma of wanting to limit video games, but were unsure how to do that if video games were the only way their children were socializing with their friends, albeit virtually, through the chat function.

The parents we spoke with are finding ways to figure this out on their own. Kids are finding creative ways to be social online, through virtual conferencing. The parents of children with disabilities we spoke with are advocating for new IEP goals and Extended School Year to help combat the social learning loss. 

Families who have the means are paying for supplemental activities, such as virtual music lessons, but they fear it is not enough to fill the void of social opportunities. For many families, even private lessons are not an option. And many families rely on these in-person opportunities in place of childcare, so they can work. As the nation opens up and more parents return to their jobs, this will be a bigger challenge. 

Mental Health

Kids’ mental health is suffering as a result of quarantine. Each family has unique circumstances, each family is experiencing the pandemic in different ways. Kids are grieving and experiencing different levels of trauma. The parents we spoke with have been intentional about talking about feelings, mental health, and social challenges with their children, trying to minimize the long-term effects of this pandemic. 

Schools have tried to find ways to build connections and foster a sense of community during the pandemic. Parents shared that some teachers are doing small-group or individualized check-ins focused on the whole child, but these are rare. For some middle and high school students, schools are finding ways for advisory staff to play a bigger role in the social-emotional health of students. Still, it is not enough. A national survey by the American Enterprise Institute had similar findings: 50 percent of parents are worried about how the current pandemic is affecting their child’s mental health and emotional well-being, and parents reported their children feeling lonely, anxious, scared, and acting out of character.  

Looking Ahead to Summer School and Fall

Schools must find ways to address both kinds of social-emotional needs: the need for more social opportunities and the need to address broader mental health issues and trauma.

How can schools and organizations support families as they find ways for their children to connect with their peers this summer? A few select organizations, such as RESCHOOL Colorado and EdNavigator, are set up to help parents navigate educational decisions, and have pivoted this summer to help families find meaningful activities for their children. But the reality is that throughout most of the country, parents are on their own. 

Districts and states are starting to release guidance on fall reopening. California’s reopening guidance, for instance, has student, faculty, staff, and family “well-being” at the core. We urge more states to follow suit. Upon reopening, schools will need strong social-emotional learning programs in place, as well as trauma-informed instruction, and will need to assess the social-emotional needs of students upon their return. School counselors and social workers will be more important than ever, to assess and address social-emotional needs. American Enterprise Institute’s national parent survey shows that increased counseling and other mental health services are important to parents. 

An unprecedented pandemic forced schools to scramble to set up bare-bones remote learning systems in the spring. Come fall, the challenges of remote learning, or partial remote learning, will remain, but schools must have robust plans in place, not just to support academic learning for all students, but for extracurricular activities, student life, and social-emotional support—especially for the most vulnerable students. 

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