At a time when people from all spheres of the education field are concerned about the emotional and physical wellbeing of their students, many are asking what can be done. The PEER Management Team has thought a great deal about how we can contribute our skills to the COVID-19 response. We believe it is critical to understand the impact of the public health response and parental stressors on the safety and wellbeing of children. This information will provide critical insight into how best to support vulnerable children and their families during and after the pandemic, and it may elucidate adjustments to the public health response that could reduce unintended negative consequences. Given that the Centers for Disease Control predict this wave of coronavirus infections to be followed by another wave this fall or winter (1), it’s important to examine evidence now that inform decision-making and resource allocation in the near future. One question that we have been asking ourselves, and are now pursuing, is what will the effect of school closures and other social distancing measures have on child and family wellbeing?
The COVID-19 Public Health Response, Family Stress, and Child Safety
The COVID-19 pandemic has activated an extensive public health response (2), including implementation of social distancing measures such as mass school and child care closures across the US (3). These measures, when implemented in a planful and proactive manner, can reduce the transmission of viruses and new incidents of infection (4,5,6). At the same time, it’s important to understand the unintended consequences of the public health response. Because of school and child care closures, children have been spending dramatically more time at home since the middle of March. Thus far, 43 states have ordered or recommended school closures through the end of the school year, which means that approximately 45 million U.S. youth will be out of school until at least the fall (7). Across the country, students are isolated at home, resulting in more limited contact with the peers and teachers who normally provide social support. Many children are also losing access to important nutritional support through free and reduced-cost breakfast and lunch programs (8).
Parents and other primary caregivers are also experiencing the effects of the public health response. Many caregivers are coping with social distancing measures that may impact work (e.g., remote tele-commuting, workplace closures, or lay-offs), while also arranging for or providing for their children’s educational and childcare needs. These stressors, coupled with increased time with children at home, may elevate risk that children will experience incidents of child maltreatment (e.g., physical, sexual, emotional abuse; physical, supervisory, or other neglect). This risk is particularly elevated for children whose caregivers experience stressors known to be associated with maltreatment (e.g., parenting or work-related stress, economic uncertainty, or food insecurity) (9,10, 11) as a result of the COVID-19 response (12,13). Further, these risks may even increase over time, as public health measures remain in effect for extended periods and families cope with social and economic effects of the crisis.
However, acquiring high-quality data on parental stressors and the safety of children is difficult in the current context. Although state child protection agencies are tasked with monitoring and intervening with maltreatment, there are several reasons why data collected by such agencies are likely to be unreliable during a pandemic. First, educational and childcare personnel are primary sources of maltreatment reports, which means that new cases of abuse or neglect are more likely to go undetected with school and childcare closures in place. Second, some child protection agencies have reduced in-person monitoring related to prior reports, which limits surveillance of child safety in this context. As a result, child welfare agency data on reported incidents of maltreatment likely represent an undercount of maltreatment since it is be harder to identify new cases of abuse or neglect and open cases will be harder to track. Indeed, some states are already witnessing sizeable drops in reports of abuse to child protective services since the start of school closures (14,15).
The Current Study
To address this gap, Dr. Michael Strambler of the Partnership for Early Education Research (PEER) at Yale has partnered with Dr. Christian Connell of the Child Maltreatment Solutions Network at Penn State University to conduct a survey assessing parenting stressors and child safety in a representative sample of families of children ages 0-18 in the US Northeast region including Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts. Using gold-standard measures of parental behaviors, the study aims to capture data on effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and public health response on child safety and wellbeing and assess the association of parent/family stress with child outcomes during the pandemic response to provide preliminary guidance to impacted state systems.
Quantifying the problem is only one step in this important research. This initial study, supported by seed funding for research on COVID-19 from Penn State’s Huck Institute of Life Sciences and Social Science Research Institute , will build a foundation for subsequent research on the relationship of pandemic response with child safety, health, and educational outcomes. Understanding the extent of the problem will help states to weigh the costs and benefits of school and child care closures, but it is critical to move toward solutions. What policies or programs can reduce the negative impact of school and child care closures on parent/family stressors, parent/family wellbeing, and parenting behaviors? What can organizations that serve children and families do to provide support during this difficult time? What types of support appear to do the most to reduce stress and promote health parenting behaviors? Throughout this challenging time, education stakeholders are all looking for ways to address the needs of students and their families. PEER hopes to do its part by using scientific inquiry to illuminate how our institutions and people can come together to support the most vulnerable.
(1) Sun., LS. CDC director warns second wave of coronavirus is likely to be even more devastating. Washington Post. April 21, 2020.
(2) Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Interim guidance for businesses and employers to plan and respond to Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19). 2020 [March 25, 2020].
(3) Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Guidance for schools and child care programs: Before and during an outbreak. 2020 [March 25, 2020]; Available from: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/community/schools-childcare/index.html.
(4) Uchida M, Tsukahara T, Kaneko M, Washizuka S, Kawa S. Effect of short-term school closures on the H1N1 pandemic in Japan: a comparative case study. Infection. 2012; 40:549-56.
(5) Davis BM, Markel H, Navarro A, Wells E, Monto AS, Aiello AE. The effect of reactive school closure on community influenza-like illness counts in the state of Michigan during the 2009 H1N1 pandemic. Clinical Infectious Diseases. 2015; 60:e90-e7.
(6) Markel H, Lipman HB, Navarro JA, Sloan A, Michalsen JR, Stern AM, et al. Nonpharmaceutical interventions implemented by US cities during the 1918-1919 influenza pandemic. JAMA. 2007; 298:644-54.
(7) Education Week. Map: Coronavirus and School Closures. 2020 [April 26, 2020].
(8) Abad-Santos A. How US schools are (and aren’t) providing meals to children in the COVID-19 crisis. Vox. March 28, 2020.
(9) Stith SM, Liu T, Davies LC, Boykin EL, Alder MC, Harris JM, et al. Risk factors in child maltreatment: A meta-analytic review of the literature. Aggression and violent behavior. 2009; 14:13-29.
(10) Warren EJ, Font SA. Housing insecurity, maternal stress, and child maltreatment: An application of the family stress model. Social Service Review. 2015; 89:9-39.
(11) Cicchetti D, Toth SL. Child maltreatment. Annu Rev Clin Psychol. 2005; 1:409-38.
(12) The Alliance for Child Protection in Humanitarian Action. Technical Note: Protection of Children during the Coronavirus Pandemic, Version 1, March, 2020.
(13) Lee SJ, Ward KP. Stress and parenting during the Coronavirus pandemic. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, School of Social Work, 2020.
(14) Eldeib D. Calls to Illinois’ child abuse hotline dropped by nearly half amid the spread of Coronavirus. Here’s why that’s not good news. ProPublica Illinois. March 24, 2020.
(15) Santhanam L. Why child welfare experts fear a spike of abuse during COVID-19. PBS News Hour. April 6, 2020.