Parents of virtual learners say their kids have worse mental health, less time outside, CDC survey finds

One year after the coronavirus pandemic shut down schools nationwide, a CDC survey released Thursday shows that remote learning has taken a toll on the mental and physical health of both parents and children. 

The survey of 1,290 parents found that 45.7% of children were in remote learning only, 30.9% were going to school for in-person instruction, and 23.4% received a mix of the two. 

The parents of children who learned virtually reported worse outcomes for their kids on 11 of 17 stress and well-being indicators compared to kids who went to school for in-person instruction. 

"Parents of children receiving virtual instruction were more likely than were parents of children receiving in-person instruction to report that their children experienced decreased physical activity (62.9% versus 30.3%), time spent outside (58.0% versus 27.4%), in-person time with friends (86.2% versus 69.5%), virtual time with friends (24.3% versus 12.6%), and worsened mental or emotional health (24.9% versus 15.9%)," the authors wrote. 

Kids who received combined instruction also fared worse on the same measures, but to a lesser extent. 

The parents of kids who learned remotely also struggled, as they were more likely to report loss of work, emotional distress, difficulty sleeping, and worse outcomes on other issues. 

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The survey was conducted from Oct. 8 to Nov. 13, but was released Thursday as part of the CDC's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

"Findings suggest that virtual instruction might present more risks than does in-person instruction related to child and parental mental and emotional health and some health-supporting behaviors," the CDC authors wrote. 

Dr. David Greenhorn, who works in the emergency room at a hospital in the UK, told the Associated Press that the rise in suicide among children is an "international epidemic" that "we are not recognizing."

"In an 8-year-old’s life, a year is a really, really, really long time," he told AP earlier this month. "They are fed up. They can’t see an end to it."

Young adults have also been hurt by the lockdowns. A CDC study last summer found that 25.5% of Americans aged 18-24 "seriously considered" suicide in the last 30 days. 

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President Joe Biden has promised to open most elementary and middle schools by the end of his first 100 days in office. 

The recently passed $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief allocated $122 billion to K-12 schools across the nation to speed up that process. 

CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said Wednesday that the agency will "soon" release updated guidance on school reopening plans that could include shortening recommended social distancing from six feet to three feet. 

"I, too, am concerned about the mental health of our children, and we are working very hard to get our schools open," Dr. Walensky testified to Congress Wednesday. 

If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

The Associated Press contributed to this report.