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A new survey found that fewer parents than previously believed say they had difficulty helping their kids with remote learning, but a large number still find it extremely challenging. Clique Images/Stocksy United
  • New research found that 57 percent of parents found remote learning worked better than they expected.
  • This is a larger percentage than previously believed, but it doesn’t discount the families that are finding it more challenging due to various factors.
  • It’s likely families with a parent who can stay home, or those able to hire help for their kids, are adjusting better than those that can’t.
  • Experts suggest this could lead to an even wider education gap between the haves and the have-nots.

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Most parents of a school-age child would probably agree — the past year has been difficult.

Having the stress of a global pandemic, job instability (or loss), and forced to physically or socially distance from friends and loved ones was bad enough, but being in charge of their children’s education on top of all that created more challenges.

However, a recent study suggests maybe virtual schooling hasn’t been as hard on many parents as previously thought.

According to the study published in the Journal of School Choice, 57 percent of parents agreed their child’s remote schooling worked better than they expected, and 60 percent of parents believed their schools prepared their children well for remote learning.

The study included 1,743 parents who all responded to the same survey. Public, private, and charter schools were all represented in the study.

Though a slight majority of parents reported positive experiences, many families found it more challenging.

“There are a variety of factors that contribute to parents having differing responses around the management of virtual learning,” said Ashley Fogarty, director of student supports for UP Education Network, a nonprofit organization that runs five Boston-area schools in underserved neighborhoods.

Certain students may need additional parental support, including those who might traditionally need more check-ins with a teacher in the classroom or those receiving special education services.

“For some parents who are working outside of the home, or even working from home, having to support students could feel like another full-time job,” Fogarty said.

“For a family that has a parent who does not work full time and can attend to remote learning, it is going to be a much easier situation to handle, compared to a household where a single parent is working full time and also needs to try to support their student in remote learning,” Fogarty explained.

A student’s age may also be a significant factor in how much work is required of the parent(s), says Allison Kawa, PsyD, a licensed clinical psychologist and the clinical director at the Los Angeles Center for Integrated Assessment (LACIA).

“Younger children do not have the self-management capacity to sit in front of a computer, keep track of Zoom schedules and time passage, and monitor their work pace, because the parts of their brains that mediate these skills simply are not developed yet,” she explained, adding that these are developmentally inappropriate tasks for kids.

That means their parents may be the ones who have to take over.

Also, Kawa said the youngest students [those in kindergarten through second grade] likely need their parents’ help staying on task and completing assignments more than older students do.

“There is a huge range of programming, with some students having nearly full-time engagement on Zoom, while others have only a few hours per day,” Kawa said.

She noted that students with less guidance and support from the school level are obviously going to need more of both from their parents in order to succeed.

She believes these differences likely come down to the allocation of limited resources, rather than any intention to increase the burden on parents.

“In my experience working with schools, they are truly doing everything they can with whatever resources they have available to support student learning,” she said.

Fogarty agreed, saying most schools and teachers are being as creative as possible to ensure students don’t have to depend on parents to facilitate remote learning.

“But the reality is if a student is 5 or 6 years old, there is going to be a learning curve for accessing technology, and parents are usually going to be involved,” she explained.

It may be true that a majority of families reported adapting to virtual learning better than previously assumed. But it’s important to remember that plenty of families are still struggling.

“Parents who must work outside the home or whose jobs make it impossible for them to support their children during distance learning are stuck between a rock and a hard place,” Kawa said. “They essentially feel that they must choose between their livelihood and their child’s education.”

It’s a choice no parent should have to make, and it’s one being placed most often on families that may have been struggling financially to begin with.

“This is a systemic problem in our country. Families that can afford to have a parent at home supporting their children or that can afford to hire help will have smaller gaps than those who do not have these choices,” Kawa said.

At UP Education Network, Fogarty works with many kids likely lacking parental supports.

Their student population is composed of 98 percent Black or Hispanic/Latinx students, 72 percent SNAP-eligible students (almost double the state average), and 84 percent high-needs students.

When asked about the families who reported virtual learning going well, she said, “This is probably true for upper-middle class and wealthy families who were able to hire tutors and have their children work in learning pods, but I think, for the most part, remote learning has taken quite a toll on families across this country. Especially for families that have been historically underserved and overlooked.”

Though a larger number of parents than expected said virtual schooling had been going well, 63 percent still said they feel their kids have fallen behind over the past year. They may be right.

“For many students, parents’ concerns are valid,” Kawa said. “There was an abrupt shift in teaching demands being placed on teachers who, like the rest of us, were in a state of high anxiety due to the pandemic.”

Anxiety and stress, she explained, can short-circuit critical-thinking skills, making it harder to adapt and shift.

“Many schools struggled to provide instruction in the spring of 2020, and consequently, some learners will have spotty foundations or holes in their knowledge base,” she said.

Kawa believes more schools had improved virtual learning by the fall and provided more robust learning plans. While she believes elementary school students may have struggled the most, especially in the beginning, she said the good news is that everyone is in the same boat.

“Students are resilient, so carefully planned efforts to fill gaps and get students back on track will likely be effective for most learners,” she said.

Her biggest concern, she said, is that children with attention, learning, and processing issues may be identified much later because their difficulty will be chalked up to distance learning, and opportunities for early intervention may be lost.

Then there is the impact these concerns may have on families as a whole.

“Women, in particular, are dropping out of the workforce at an alarming rate to support their children and homeschool efforts,” Kawa said. “This causes financial stress in the short term and may make it more challenging for parents to return to the workforce in the long term.”

Also, she said parents trying their best to help their kids keep up might be well-intentioned, but that doesn’t mean they’re trained to teach. The result, she said, can be a significant increase in stress, tension, and frustration for everyone in the family.

“This not only causes problems in the parent-child relationship, but it may result in the student forming or cementing negative beliefs about themselves as learners or about their attitude toward school.” And much of that may be difficult to come back from.

Right now, Kawa said, is a time for prioritizing mental health and stress management — for the whole family.

“I think there is reason to be hopeful. The majority of students will bounce back from this, catch up, and have lived through a truly remarkable period of time that, hopefully, taught them valuable lessons they could not have learned elsewhere.”

Fogarty agreed, noting that adjusting to remote learning challenges has certainly pushed technology to the forefront of education.

“Teachers now have new tools that can be used in the classroom, and students have learned many new educational ways to interact with technology,” Fogarty said. “Hopefully, once back in person, these two models of remote and in-person will have some positive impacts on students’ ability to access more through their experience in remote learning.”