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Vanderbilt Child Health Poll: Tennessee parents concerned about education, kids’ mental health as COVID-19 presses on

The latest Vanderbilt Child Health Poll release found that many Tennessee parents are worried about the mental health of their children during the COVID-19 pandemic, and over 80 percent of parents had concerns about their children attending school remotely. The poll also revealed that schooling practices and mental health concerns have varied widely among Tennessee families of different racial and economic groups.

More than half (52 percent) of parents were worried about their child’s lack of social interaction with peers of the same age when school is held remotely. Nearly half (48 percent) are concerned about the lack of one-on-one attention from their child’s teacher. The most recent poll of more than 1,000 Tennessee parents was conducted in fall 2020.

In-person or virtual school varied widely by race. The latest poll report found that 58 percent of children in Black families were learning in a fully virtual environment, compared to just 23 percent of children in white families. Only 16 percent of Black parents reported their children were attending school in person compared to 43 percent of white parents.

Carolyn Heinrich (Vanderbilt University)

“This raises serious equity concerns, given that low-income and historically underserved families will have fewer resources to ensure that their children have access to quality online educational opportunities,” said Carolyn Heinrich, Ph.D., Patricia and Rodes Hart Chair Professor of Public Policy and Education and associate professor of leadership, policy and organizations in the Peabody College at Vanderbilt University and professor of health policy in the School of Medicine.  Heinrich is also a member of the Vanderbilt Center for Child Health Policy and led the poll report.

The poll asked parents about their concerns for their child’s mental health since March 2020, when the pandemic forced many schools into virtual or hybrid instruction settings and changed the structure of children’s educational and social lives.

The poll found an 8 percentage point increase—from 14 percent to 22 percent between 2019 and 2020—in parents reporting concerns their child may have anxiety. Parental concerns about undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) rose from 2.4 percent to 5.3 percent.

There were also wide differences of socioeconomic status among those reporting concerns their child had undiagnosed anxiety, depression or stress. Nearly half of parents (48 percent) whose household annual incomes were below $25,000 reported concern for these diagnoses compared with less than a third of parents with higher incomes.

Catherine Fuchs, MD (Vanderbilt University)

“Disruption of traditional schooling during the COVID-19 pandemic highlights the complexity of mental health in children. Schools provide an infrastructure for access to mental health care for many children, support that is at a minimum altered and potentially lost with virtual learning. Racial disparities in virtual versus in-person learning intersect with access to mental health resource within schools,” said Catherine Fuchs, M.D., professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and professor of pediatrics.

The findings suggest that the pandemic cut off or reduced access to important school-based health and social services that support child health, and that it perhaps had a greater negative impact on economically disadvantaged children.

Researchers recommend that educators at the local level think creatively to provide engagement opportunities—like virtual movie nights or virtual field trips—to address social challenges. Additionally, state educational agencies and policymakers should pursue every available resource, including federal funding programs, and reconsider previous legislation introduced in February 2020 to expand a mental health trust fund for all 95 Tennessee counties. Educational systems need to partner with mental health systems to ensure access to care, such as telehealth, and engagement in care when faced with logistical, social and emotional barriers.

“Families need strong supports to help deliver online learning well in the home, and school districts that are most resource-constrained are least likely to be able to provide those supports,” Heinrich said.

About the Vanderbilt Child Health Poll

The Vanderbilt Child Health Poll aims to understand the concerns and experiences of Tennessee parents. The poll was conducted among 1,066 parents statewide and explores parental concerns as a mechanism to inform the public and policymakers of the challenges faced by Tennessee’s children. The Vanderbilt Poll for Child Health is sampled to be representative of Tennessee families and covers a variety of child health issues.

About Vanderbilt Center for Child Health Policy

The Vanderbilt Center for Child Health Policy strives to improve the well-being of children and families through research that transforms clinical care and public health policy. CCHP is a multidisciplinary center comprised of teams with expertise in neonatology, pediatrics, obstetrics, health policy, biostatistics, economics, implementation science and public health from across Vanderbilt University and Vanderbilt University Medical Center. CCHP focuses on conducting and disseminating salient children’s health research, informing evidence-based policy and building partnerships among clinicians, researchers, policymakers and the public.