Since the pandemic hit, nearly 50% of responding parents in a new study of low-income families said they had lost their jobs or had decreased work hours and experienced food insecurity, according to Georgetown psychology professor Anna Johnson.
She says some families reported especially high levels of food insecurity – including 61% of Hispanic/Latinx families, 52% of American Indian/Alaskan Native families, 43% of Black families and 28% of white families.
Impacting Family Ecosystems
“The finding replicates other studies that have found widespread evidence of racial injustice reflected in the impacts of the pandemic,” says fellow psychology professor Deborah Phillips.
“As everyone knows, when the pandemic hit, many workplaces closed and many low-income parents whose job situations were already unstable lost their jobs or had reduced hours and pay,” Johnson explains. “Those experiences impacted the family ecosystem, including children’s development, stress and well-being and parent-child interactions.”
Nearly half of responding parents in the study, which looked at the effect of COVID-19 disruptions and stressors on low-income families with young children, also said their kids have experienced emotional or behavioral problems since the pandemic began.
1,000 Low-Income Families
Johnson and her research team, which includes Ph.D. students Owen Schochet (G’21), Jane Hutchison (G’21) and Anne Partika (G’23), embedded a survey about the effects of COVID-19 into a longitudinal NIH-funded study of approximately 1,000 low-income families in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
That study, directed by Johnson and Phillips, is in partnership with colleagues at the University of Oklahoma-Tulsa and the Tulsa Public Schools, which has been lauded for its successful pre-K program.
The study began in 2016 with low-income families with 3-year-old children, who were about to finish first grade when COVID-19 hit.
Parent and Teacher Well-Being
While the larger study measures child achievement, family and teacher well-being and other factors related to these children each spring and fall, the last set of surveys and assessments took place before the pandemic hit, and Johnson wants to see how they are faring now.
In addition to high rates of food insecurity, the strongest loss of income in Johnson’s study also appears to be for Hispanic families, at 65%, with multiracial families and American Indian/Alaskan Native families both at 59%, Black families at 51%, white families at 49% and Asian families at 33 percent.
“Obviously, we couldn’t do interviews in person, so we sent out an electronic survey to parents and teachers asking a range of questions about stress and learning in a virtual environment,” Johnson says.
Pandemic’s Negative Effects
The survey asked questions about potential changes in parental depression, anxiety, sleep, loneliness, physical health, household routines, food access, employment, health and mental health care and more.
“I think it is nearly certain that COVID-19 has had negative effects on young children and family functioning,” Johnson says. “The balancing act that parents are having to do is challenging enough for financially stable families, but low-income families may have to choose between making rent and buying groceries.”
“These low-income kids are also more likely to have unreliable internet access,” she adds. “Some of them don’t have devices beyond a parent’s smartphone, which makes connecting to teachers and classmates for learning, nearly impossible.”
She also notes that opportunities for learning shrank dramatically with the shift to remote instruction, especially for children with special needs. Teachers also struggled to motivate their young learners while parents struggled to find the time to help them, she says.
46%of teachers had children at homewho were participating in their own distance learning
Only 29%of teachers reportedthat “nearly all” their students participated in distance learning activities.
Other findings of the study determined that:
Nearly one in five parents reported that their child never communicated with their teacher during distance learning.
Two in five children spent an hour per day or less on distance learning, as reported by their parents.
Teachers added time for planning for remote learning and responding to student and parent questions to their “usual” responsibilities.
Supporting Vulnerable Children
“Whether schools are in-person or virtual in the fall, the resources that schools and teachers provide in the form not only of instruction but also of food, social and emotional support and access to the internet, will have a profound effect on the academic growth, health and well-being of young children and their families,” Phillips says.
Johnson says she hopes the survey results will be used by school districts and support staff to help them support low-income children.
“By distinguishing between families who are able to cope with the consequences of COVID-19 from those less able to withstand the pandemic-related stressors, we can inform the development and targeting of home and school-based interventions,” she says.