A mother helping her daughter with online reading assignments while homeschooling during COVID-19

Jennifer Panditaratne helps Hazeline with her reading assignments as she is homeschooling in Broward County, Florida, U.S. May 29, 2020.

Photo by Maria Alejandra Cardona/Reuters

The coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic has been particularly challenging for parents as schools and child care centers closed or switched to distance learning in spring 2020. Parents have become not only their children's primary teachers but also their full-time caretakers (if they had not already taken on that role). For parents who were employed full-time, as well as for those who experienced job loss and financial challenges during this period, these child care and teaching burdens may have felt insurmountable. Nearly half of parents of children in public schools (grades K–12) who responded to a recent national survey indicated that they had some or a lot of worry about juggling their many responsibilities while everyone was at home,[1] and a separate survey indicated that parents' most pressing needs included additional money to pay for necessities and help keep children "engaged in good activities."[2]

In an earlier report, we presented survey results from nationally representative RAND American Educator Panels (AEP) samples of K–12 public school teachers and principals about the provision of education during spring 2020 COVID-19–related school closures.[3] Those surveys, which were administered via the AEP in late April and early May 2020, examined teachers' and principals' perspectives on the needs of their students, but they do not provide parents' perspectives. To complement the AEP findings and contribute to the growing information about parents' concerns and needs during the COVID-19 pandemic, we posed questions to parents via the nationally representative RAND American Life Panel (ALP) regarding

  • time spent caring for their children or helping with schoolwork during school closures
  • what they needed most to support their children's learning.

These questions were included as part of a broader ALP survey that was fielded from May 1 to May 6, 2020 and assessed the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on U.S. individuals and households.[4]

The three main takeaways we examine in more detail are the following:

  • About two-thirds to three-quarters of parents of children ages zero to 12 reported spending "much more time" on child care and helping with their children's learning than they had before the closures, and one-quarter or fewer of parents of teenagers reported the same.
  • Compared with parents of teenage children, parents with multiple children across age groups were more likely to report the need for almost every learning resource we asked about in our survey, from ideas on how to motivate their children to guidance to support their social and emotional needs.
  • Parents who experienced more difficulty covering their expenses and paying their bills reported a much greater need for resources to support their children's learning than those without financial concerns.

Two-Thirds to Three-Quarters of Parents of Children Ages Zero to 12 Reported Spending Much More Time on Child Care and Support Activities for Children's Learning Since School Closures Began

Compared with before the COVID-19 pandemic, 57 percent of all parents reported spending much more time on the care and supervision of their children, and 65 percent reported spending much more time helping their children with learning activities. As might be expected, these percentages were significantly higher for parents of younger children compared with parents of teenagers; roughly two-thirds to three-quarters of parents of children ages zero to 12 reported spending much more time on child care and helping with their children's learning (see Table 1). Still, one-quarter of parents of teenagers reported spending much more time on support for their teens' learning, which suggests that the time demands created by school closures are affecting even some parents of older students.

Table 1. Percentage of Parents Who Reported Spending Much More Time on the Care, Supervision, and Learning of Their Children, by Age of Children

Survey Item Parents of One or More Child(ren) Ages 0–5 (n = 25) Parents of One or More Child(ren) Ages 6–12 (n = 42) Parents of One or More Child(ren) Ages 13–18 (n = 80) Parents of Multiple Children Across Age Ranges (n = 129)
Parents spending much more time on the care and supervision of their children 71 71 15* 66
Parents spending much more time helping their children with learning activities provided by their schools or child care centers 62 80 25* 77

NOTES: The survey item on which these results are based was "Compared with when they were in school or a child care center, how much time are you spending on each of the following activities?" The response scale was "much less," "a little less," "about the same," "a little more," "and much more." To assess whether differences between subgroups were statistically significant, we performed a series of Wald tests that compared the weighted means of each age group, comparing two subgroups at a time (e.g., comparing parents of children ages zero to 5 with parents of children ages 6 to 12). Asterisks (*) indicate a significant difference between the responses of parents of children ages 13–18 with parents of children in the other age groups (p < 0.05).

Parents of Multiple Children Across Age Groups Reported Greater Needs for Their Children's Learning Than Parents of Older Children

We also asked parents about the extent to which they needed additional supports to meet their children's learning needs while schools and child care centers were closed. The survey question included infrastructure supports (e.g., internet-connected devices,[7] space in the home), access to expertise from such professionals as teachers or technology experts, guidance or materials to address children's learning needs, and time. According to our principal survey data from May 2020, nearly all schools have provided families with information during the pandemic about ways to support their children's academic, social, and emotional learning.[8] However, these principal data provide no evidence regarding the extent to which these supports meet families' needs.

ALP data for this report suggest that the resources schools offered to families during school closures have not met all their needs. Across parents of all age groups except parents of children ages 13 to 18, the highest percentages of parents reported a need for the following three resources: more time to spend on learning activities, ideas for ways to motivate their children to engage with learning materials, and instructional materials from their schools or child care centers (see Figure 1).[9] The relatively high level of need for guidance on student engagement is consistent with results from another national parent survey, where "help keeping my children engaged in good activities" was the support the highest percentage of parents indicated would be most helpful.[10] Similarly, "strategies to keep students engaged and motivated to learn remotely" was by far the need expressed by the largest percentage of teachers in our AEP surveys.[11] Remote instruction during school closures offers numerous challenges, but finding ways to ensure that children are engaged in learning activities is one of the more significant ones.

In addition, large percentages of parents with multiple children across age groups and with younger children reported a need for support for their children's social and emotional needs in addition to their academic learning. This finding also reflects data from our AEP surveys of teachers, who reported needs for social and emotional supports for their students at the same (if not greater) rates than for academic supports.[12]

Parents with multiple children across the age groups we examined were more likely than those with one or more children within one age group (i.e., only children who are ages zero to 5) to indicate a moderate or great need for nearly every learning support we asked about—from more time in their schedule to spend with their children to instructional materials from their schools or child care centers (see Figure 1). It may be that parents with children across multiple age groups have more difficulty juggling the different types of schoolwork and expectations of their children. However, at the same time, parents of multiple children across age ranges generally had more children in the household than their counterparts with children in only one age group, which could increase their needs regardless of their children's ages.[13]

Parents with younger children also reported a need for many of these learning supports in greater proportions than those with older children, although we did not observe significant differences between parents of children ages zero to 5 and other age groups. For example, "ideas for ways to motivate [my children] to engage with learning materials" was noted as a great or moderate need by 62 percent of parents of children across multiple age groups and 44 percent of parents of children ages zero to 5, compared with 30 percent or fewer parents of children ages 6 to 12 and 13 to 18. One-third or more of parents with children ages zero to 5 and multiple children across age groups indicated a moderate or great need for guidance on every other learning support we asked about, with the exception of supports for special needs (which was noted by 41 percent of parents with multiple children across age groups).

Figure 1. Percentage of Parents Reporting a Moderate or Great Need for Various Learning Resources, by Age of Children

Parents of one or more children ages 13–18 (n=80) Parents of one or more children ages 6–12 (n=42) Parents of one or more children ages 0–5 (n=25) Parents of multiple children across age ranges (n=129)
More time in my schedule to spend with them on learning activities* 32% 41% 60% 64%
Ideas for ways to motivate them to engage with learning materials** 24% 30% 44% 62%
Instructional materials or resources from their schools or childcare centers** 20% 34% 49% 58%
Guidance to help me address their social or emotional needs or their mental health** 18% 17% 40% 52%
Guidance to help me support their academic learning** 22% 27% 40% 50%
More space in my home for them to work* 12% 28% 37% 49%
Teachers or others who can provide them with instruction or support 35% 28% 41% 46%
Availability of an internet-connected device for them to use** 17% 21% 37% 43%
School or center staff who can provide them or me with technical support for online learning activities** 19% 13% 35% 43%
Supports for their special needs*** 14% 15% 12% 41%

NOTES: The survey item on which these results are based was "To what extent do you need more of any of the following to support your children's learning while their schools/centers are closed?" The response scale was "no need," "slight need," "moderate need," and "great need." To assess whether differences between subgroups were statistically significant, we performed a series of Wald tests that compared the weighted means of each age group, comparing two subgroups at a time (e.g., comparing parents of children ages zero to 5 with parents of children ages 6 to 12). Three asterisks (***) indicate a significant difference (p < 0.05) between the responses of parents of multiple children across age ranges and those of parents of children in all three of the other age groups (ages zero to 5, 6 to 12, and 13 to 18). Two asterisks (**) indicate a significant difference (p < 0.05) between the responses of parents of multiple children across age ranges and those of parents of children ages 6 to 12 and parents of children ages 13 to 18. One asterisk (*) indicates a significant difference (p < 0.05) between the responses of parents of multiple children across age ranges and those of parents of children ages 13 to 18 only.

Parents Who Experienced More Difficulty Covering Their Expenses and Paying Their Bills Were More Likely to Express a Moderate or Great Need for Additional Supports to Address Their Children's Learning and Social or Emotional Needs

We also found that some families were experiencing financial stress that might affect their need for support. The survey from which we drew our data asked respondents how difficult it had been for them to cover their expenses and pay all their bills. Of those who indicated that their child care center or school was closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic, 36 percent indicated that it was somewhat or very difficult to cover their expenses or pay their bills. We used these data to explore whether family financial stress might be associated with parents' perceptions of inadequate supports for their children's learning.

Parents experiencing difficulty covering their expenses were far more likely to indicate a moderate or great need for all of the ten supports we asked about in our survey, from ways to motivate their children to engage with learning materials to more space and time to support their children's learning activities (see Figure 2). There could be many explanations for this trend. We did not observe a significant relationship between the time that parents reported spending on helping their children with their learning activities and their reported difficulty in covering their expenses. However, parents experiencing difficulty covering their expenses were significantly more likely to report spending much more time on the care and supervision of their children (73 percent of those who reported experiencing difficulty covering their expenses versus just 50 percent of those who did not report experiencing difficulty covering their expenses; p < 0.05). It could be that parents of children ages zero to 12—who were also more likely to report needing learning supports than parents of older children—might have been more likely to have to leave their jobs or move to part-time work in order to care for their children during school and child care center closures, which could create financial stress. Another possible explanation is that parents of younger children may not have accrued as much wealth as older children's parents, who likely have more work experience. Our data indicate that from 36 to 42 percent of parents with children ages zero to 12 or multiple children reported it being somewhat or very difficult to cover their expenses, whereas only 18 percent of parents with only children ages 13 to 18 said the same. In addition, parents who can pay their bills and cover their expenses may be better positioned both financially and mentally to offer their children a variety of supports, such as space in their home and internet connections that afford more interaction and guidance with teachers and education experts.

Figure 2. Percentage of Parents Reporting a Moderate or Great Need for Various Learning Resources, by Financial Status

Parents finding it difficult to cover expenses (n=94) Parents finding it not at all difficult to cover expenses (n=176)
Ideas for ways to motivate them to engage with learning materials 75% 30%
More time in my schedule to spend with them on learning activities 72% 43%
Instructional materials or resources from their schools or child care centers 72% 28%
Guidance to help me support their academic learning 71% 20%
Teachers or others who can provide them with instruction or support 67% 25%
Guidance to help me address their social or emotional needs or their mental health 66% 22%
More space in my home for them to work 66% 18%
School or center staff who can provide them or me with technical support for online learning activities 60% 16%
Availability of an internet-connected device for them to use 55% 20%
Supports for their special needs 52% 12%

NOTES: The survey item on which these results are based was "To what extent do you need more of any of the following to support your children's learning while their schools/centers are closed?" The response scale was "no need," "slight need," "moderate need," and "great need." All differences between (1) parents experiencing difficulty covering expenses and paying bills and (2) those not experiencing difficulty were significant (p < 0.05) based on Wald tests comparing weighted means.

In summary, these findings underscore the need for many more learning resources—not just child care and supervision—to support parents of children at multiple ages, and particularly high needs for support for parents who are struggling financially. Between one-half and three-quarters of parents who reported difficulty paying their bills also reported a moderate or great need for every learning support we asked about in our survey. These data suggest that parents who are already experiencing a great deal of financial stress are also feeling undersupported to help with their children's learning during this period. If they have not done so already, schools might consider reaching out to families to ask about what they need most to support their children's learning to understand not only what needs are not being met but also the variation in needs across their district. In addition, parents with multiple children in different age groups might benefit from tips or ideas for handling the differing needs of their children; more-explicit information about the different learning materials, platforms, and supports provided by their school for different age groups; and such supports as additional tutoring when they do not feel that they can support their children adequately.

Lastly, policymakers might assume that parents of children younger than 6 do not need extensive academic supports to help their children learn at home, but our survey suggests that between one-third and one-half of parents of young children want additional learning supports, perhaps because they receive them less frequently than parents of school-age children. Some useful tips for how early learning and child care providers can manage distance learning and support families have emerged during the COVID-19 pandemic.[14] Child care providers—as well as schools—might consider offering online learning opportunities that target parents directly to provide them with these tips, especially if remote instruction continues into fall 2020. Such learning opportunities might help parents develop and enact strategies to engage their children in learning and address their social and emotional needs, along with their academic ones.

Notes

  • [1] Learning Heroes, "Parents 2020: COVID-19 Closures—A Redefining Moment for Students, Parents, and Schools," webinar slides, May 20, 2020. As of June 14, 2020: https://bealearninghero.org/research/
  • [2] John P. Bailey and Olivia Shaw, "How Parents Are Navigating the Pandemic: A Comprehensive Analysis of Survey Data," Washington, D.C.: American Enterprise Institute, May 28, 2020 (see Slide 13). As of June 14, 2020: https://www.aei.org/multimedia/how-parents-are-navigating-the-pandemic-a-comprehensive-analysis-of-survey-data
  • [3] The AEP includes teachers and principals working in K–12 schools. For more information on the AEP COVID-19 surveys, see Laura S. Hamilton, David Grant, Julia H. Kaufman, Melissa Diliberti, Heather L. Schwartz, Gerald P. Hunter, Claude Messan Setodji, and Christopher J. Young, COVID-19 and the State of K–12 Schools: Results and Technical Documentation from the Spring 2020 American Educator Panels COVID-19 Surveys, Santa Monica, Calif.: RAND Corporation, RR-A168-1, 2020. As of July 1, 2020: https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RRA168-1.html
  • [4] A technical description of the survey, which includes details about the ALP, the objectives of the survey, and information about the fielding of the survey, is available in Katherine Grace Carman and Shanthi Nataraj, 2020 American Life Panel Survey on Impacts of COVID-19: Technical Documentation, Santa Monica, Calif.: RAND Corporation, RR-A308-1, 2020. As of July 1, 2020: https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RRA308-1.html. Additional information on the technical aspects of the ALP is provided in Michael Pollard and Matthew D. Baird, The RAND American Life Panel: Technical Description, Santa Monica, Calif.: RAND Corporation, RR-1651, 2017. As of July 1, 2020: https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR1651.html
  • [5] The May 2020 ALP survey asked 430 respondents who reported having at least one school-age child in their household whether their child(ren) were enrolled in child care centers or schools that closed. A small percentage of these 430 respondents are not parents but rather are grandparents, guardians, or others who lived in a household with a minor child. Of these respondents, 276 (or 65 percent) indicated that their child(ren)'s child care center or school had closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. This conflicts with information from a recent RAND survey of teachers and school leaders indicating that nearly 100 percent of U.S. schools closed (Hamilton et al., 2020). We surmise that those with school-age children might have responded that their school was not closed if distance learning was occurring.
  • [6] We have made the assumption that the 276 respondents who indicated that their child(ren)'s child care centers or schools had closed—and who were asked additional questions about their time and needs—did not differ systematically from other respondents in the sample who had a school-age child present in the household but who did not receive additional questions. We believe that this is a safe assumption because we do not have any hypotheses or rationales for why these 276 respondents might differ systematically. Furthermore, we conducted some preliminary analyses that show that the 276 respondents with school-age children present who did receive additional questions about their time and needs have similar demographic characteristics to other respondents in the sample who have school-age children but did not receive additional questions. However, if these 276 respondents do differ from other respondents with school-age children, their responses may not reflect national totals.
  • [7] We did not ask about internet access because the ALP provides free access to panel members who would otherwise not have it.
  • [8] Hamilton et al., 2020.
  • [9] The top need reported by parents of children ages 13 to 18 was "Teachers or others who can provide them with instruction or support." The other top two needs reported by parents of children ages 13 to 18 were (1) more time to spend on learning activities and (2) ideas for ways to motivate their children to engage with learning materials.
  • [10] Bailey and Shaw, 2020.
  • [11] Hamilton et al., 2020.
  • [12] Laura S. Hamilton, Julia H. Kaufman, and Melissa Diliberti, Teaching and Leading Through a Pandemic: Key Findings from the American Educator Panels Spring 2020 COVID-19 Surveys, Santa Monica, Calif.: RAND Corporation, RR-A168-2, 2020. As of June 25, 2020: https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RRA168-2.html
  • [13] Parents of multiple children across age groups had an average of 2.9 children compared with an average of 1.4 children in the zero-to-5 age group, 1.6 in the 6-to-12 age group, and 1.3 in the 13-to-18 age group.
  • [14] Dale Epstein and Joy Sotolongo, "5 Ways Early Care and Education Providers Can Support Children's Remote Learning During the COVID-19 Pandemic," ChildTrends, webpage, May 13, 2020. As of June 29, 2020: https://www.childtrends.org/publications/5-ways-early-care-and-education-providers-can-support-childrens-remote-learning-during-the-covid-19-pandemic; Melanie Muskin, "7 Tips for Managing Distance Learning in Preschool," Edutopia, webpage, April 29, 2020. As of June 12, 2020: https://www.edutopia.org/article/7-tips-managing-distance-learning-preschool

Research conducted by

This report describes a subset of results from a May 2020 survey fielded through the ALP to assess the wide-ranging effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on individuals and households. A technical description of the survey, which includes details about the ALP, the objectives of the survey, and information about the fielding of the survey, are presented in Katherine Grace Carman and Shanthi Nataraj, 2020 American Life Panel Survey on Impacts of COVID-19: Technical Documentation, Santa Monica, Calif.: RAND Corporation, RR-A308-1, 2020.

Funding for this research was provided by gifts from RAND supporters and income from operations. This research was conducted by RAND Education and Labor, a division of the RAND Corporation that conducts research on early childhood through postsecondary education programs, workforce development, and programs and policies affecting workers, entrepreneurship, and financial literacy and decisionmaking. Questions about this report should be directed to Julia Kaufman at jkaufman@rand.org, and questions about RAND Education and Labor should be directed to educationandlabor@rand.org.

This report is part of the RAND Corporation research report series. RAND reports present research findings and objective analysis that address the challenges facing the public and private sectors. All RAND reports undergo rigorous peer review to ensure high standards for research quality and objectivity.

The RAND Corporation is a nonprofit institution that helps improve policy and decisionmaking through research and analysis. RAND's publications do not necessarily reflect the opinions of its research clients and sponsors.