During the COVID-19 pandemic, low-income families with children have faced reduced work hours, lower household incomes and food insecurity, according to a survey of over 500 parents of low-income students in Tulsa, Okla., by two Georgetown University psychology professors.
On Aug. 18, as schools began to reopen despite the continued threat of the pandemic, researchers at the Tulsa School Experiences and Early Development Study published their study’s survey investigating how the pandemic has affected low-income families in Tulsa. Professors Anna Johnson and Deborah Phillips of the Georgetown department of psychology were two of the four primary investigators in the study, alongside professor Diane Horm from the University of Oklahoma-Tulsa and professor Gigi Luk of McGill University.
Funded by the National Institutes of Health, the Tulsa SEED Study first began collecting data in 2016 from low-income families with three-year-old children. The researchers are tracking how children’s participation in pre-kindergarten programs affects their learning and development through the fourth grade. The study now comprises a diverse population of over 1,000 low-income families, with the oldest children having just completed first grade when the pandemic shut down schools in the United States.
Families of color have been especially financially hurt by the pandemic, accounting for a disproportionate amount of the 60% of parents who reported that their household income had decreased and the nearly 50% of parents who reported experiencing food insecurity during the pandemic, according to the survey. Johnson and Phillips said they were not surprised by the numbers, noting that the pandemic has only exacerbated the economic and racial disparities in the country.
“Our evidence is in line with what others are finding in different regions of the country: racial disparities in economic and material hardship impacts of the pandemic, the salience of food insecurity as a source of parent stress, and the technological and time constraint-related challenges with remote instruction,” Johnson and Phillips wrote in a collaborative email to The Hoya.
The study found that low-income Tulsa families had been economically hit hard by the pandemic’s effects. Of responding parents, 46% lost their job or saw reduced work hours, with 59% reporting a decrease in total household income, according to the survey.
“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 said in an interview with Georgetown’s Discovery and Impact News.
Nationally, about 50% of non-Hispanic Black parents and low-income parents and more than 60% of Hispanic parents reported they or a family member lost work or income because of the pandemic, according to Urban Institute’s Health Reform Monitoring Survey conducted in late March and early April.
In the Tulsa SEED report, the investigation team focused on first graders enrolled in Tulsa public schools during a six-week period from May to June of 2020 and sampled 118 teachers and 586 parents, of which 90% were mothers.
Johnson and Phillips wrote that the Tulsa SEED study was the first to look at the influence of COVID-19 from the perspective of parents as well as teachers. They found that 20% of teachers reported facing food insecurity during the pandemic, and 25% have seen a decrease in their household incomes.
“I think we were most struck by the fact that these full-time teachers reported food insecurity,” Johnson and Phillips wrote. “And nearly half the sample of teachers had their own children learning at home while they were teaching—as a working parent with young children at home myself while I try to do my job, I can attest to how stressful it is to try to wear your ‘mom’ hat and your ‘teacher’ hat at the same time!”
Johnson and Phillips also said that, because the pandemic has led teachers and parents to bear increased stress, educating and caring for already disadvantaged children has become more difficult.
“We were struck by the shared stresses they experienced, the challenges they faced in collaborating to foster learning, and the clear motivation they expressed in doing so,” Johnson and Phillips wrote. “They simply need more support for working as a team to ensure that the pandemic leaves no child behind.”
The stressors of virtual school and food insecurity brought on by the pandemic have also had adverse impacts on mental health within the families and teachers surveyed. One in four parents and one in three teachers reported depressive symptoms, and teachers and parents experiencing food insecurity were doubly likely to report depressed feelings, according to the survey.
Witnessing how the pandemic has left families and children behind was one of the most difficult parts of the study, especially because children cannot escape a stressful home life by going to school, according to Johnson and Phillips.
“Teachers and school personnel are a lifeline for families in the midst of the pandemic. We cannot mention this often enough,” Johnson and Phillips wrote. “Parents and teachers are frightened, they are stressed, and they are unsure what the future holds. Environments full of stress are not good for children.”
However, giving parents and teachers a voice through the study in light of the pandemic’s hardships has been one of the most rewarding aspects of the project for the research team.
“Their experiences and needs must become a central component of efforts to address the pandemic,” Johnson and Phillips wrote. “They are our pipeline to young children, and thus to solutions aimed at enabling all families and schools to weather the pandemic as successfully as possible, not just those who can afford to purchase added supports.”