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12 September 2020: Clinical Research  

The Effects of Online Homeschooling on Children, Parents, and Teachers of Grades 1–9 During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Ying Zhao1ACEF, Yong Guo1AD, Yu Xiao1BCF, Ranke Zhu1BFG, Wei Sun1BDF, Weiyong Huang1BF, Deyi Liang1BF, Liuying Tang1BCD, Fan Zhang1F, Dongsheng Zhu1BG, Jie-Ling Wu1A*

DOI: 10.12659/MSM.925591

Med Sci Monit 2020; 26:e925591

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Abstract

BACKGROUND: Beginning in the 2020 spring semester, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, all school-age children in China were homeschooled via live/recorded broadcasts, online group communication, and software-based homework submission. This study assessed the effects of and proper preparation for this educational approach.

MATERIAL AND METHODS: The homeschooling behaviors and feelings of school-age children were assessed with 2010 online surveys obtained separately from students, parents, and teachers of grades 1–9 in 15 Chinese provinces. Answers were compared among low- (grades 1–3), middle- (grades 4–6), and high- (grades 7–9) grade groups. The chi-square test was used to identify significant differences between groups.

RESULTS: We found that 76% of the respondents thought the homeschooling style was acceptable. However, teachers were concerned that students’ interest, focus, and academic performance would decline. Sixty-nine percent of the parents reported their children had more than 3 hours of daily screen time, and 82% of students had less than 2 hours of daily outdoor activity. Ninety-five percent of the parents were concerned about their children’s eyesight. Additionally, 17.6% of the students were suspected to have emotional or behavioral problems according to the parent-rated Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire (SDQ) results. The Self-Rating Anxiety Scale (SAS) results of parents and teachers showed higher levels of anxiety than usual.

CONCLUSIONS: Students should continue the going-to-school rhythm at home to cope with changes caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Integrated grade-specific approaches are needed. Because long screen time and insufficient outdoor activities can severely affect children’s eyesight, appropriate eye-protection measures should be implemented.

Keywords: Computer Communication Networks, COVID-19, Quarantine, Schools, Adolescent, Betacoronavirus, COVID-19, Chi-Square Distribution, Child, Child Behavior Disorders, Coronavirus Infections, Education, Distance, Emotions, Interpersonal Relations, Middle Aged, Pandemics, Parents, Pneumonia, Viral, Psychology, Child, SARS-CoV-2, School Teachers, Sleep Wake Disorders, Students, Surveys and Questionnaires, Vision Disorders

Background

Home confinement was implemented nationwide in China in response to the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic. Consequently, all school-age children received homeschooling from the beginning of the 2020 spring semester [1]. Although children were considered to be less affected by the virus than adults, as revealed by clinical experience, they were not exempt from infection but merely showed less severe symptoms [2]. Given the length of the home confinement period, homeschooling was considered both necessary and effective under the circumstances [3].

Unlike the conventional homeschooling style applied in other countries, where parents, relatives, or other knowledgeable persons act as instructors and conduct basic education at home [4], the Chinese homeschooling style is a combination of live/recorded broadcasts, WeChat/DingTalk group communication, and software-based homework submission [5]. All school subjects are taught online, including the major subjects of language, science, and math and the minor subjects of morality, music, art, and gym. As this style has never been used before, and thus no previous experience can be referenced, the present study assessed the effects of and proper preparation for this educational approach.

According to the Ministry of Education, approximately 180 million primary and secondary students were being homeschooled in China. Concerns were raised regarding their mental and physical health, as well as academic performance [6,7]. To understand the possible influence, both direct and indirect, of this homeschooling style on their academic performance, we conducted a survey of primary and secondary school students enrolled in homeschooling, as well as their parents and teachers.

Material and Methods

SAMPLE:

Students enrolled in homeschooling and parents and teachers of grades 1–9 were selected for this survey. Excluding unwilling participants, responses with repeated data, and questionnaires with multiple unanswered items, a total of 2010 valid questionnaires were collected, with 738 answered by students, 1062 answered by parents (or similar guardians), and 210 answered by teachers.

MEASURES:

By means of online questionnaires developed on the “Wenjuanxing” website and submitted via cell phone, learning- and adaptation-related questions (mainly single-choice and a few fill-in-the-blank questions) were delivered separately to the students, parents, and teachers to assess homeschooling-related behaviors, feelings, and somatic effects [8]. The questions were answered as “strongly agree”, “agree”, “neither agree nor disagree”, “disagree”, and “strongly disagree”, and the choice “do not know” was included in some of the questions for parents and teachers. The survey lasted for 7 days in the second week (7 to 13 March 2020) of the homeschooling semester.

DEMOGRAPHICS:

Basic demographic information, including age and gender of the surveyed students, parents, and teachers, was collected as part of the survey. The relationship of the respondent with the homeschooled child and the child’s gender and age were also included in the parents’ survey.

SURVEY OF STUDENTS:

Questions regarding interest in learning, interaction in class, feelings, physical discomfort, screen time, outdoor activity time, sleeping time, and schooling style preference were included in the survey of students. The target population was students in grades 1–9 who were currently taking online classes.

SURVEY OF PARENTS: Parents were asked the same questions regarding one of their homeschooled children in grades 1–9 to provide a different angle from the parents’ perspectives. Additional questions on class monitoring and children’s eyesight were included. Moreover, the parent-rated Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire (SDQ) was used to assess the emotional symptoms, conduct problems, peer relationships, and other psychological characteristics of the children [9]. Previous studies in China have proven the good psychometric properties of the SDQ [10]. A cutoff score of 17 (standard score) was used to indicate an abnormal range, referring to previous studies of Chinese children [11]. The Self-Rating Anxiety Scale (SAS) was used to assess the anxiety levels of parents, with a cutoff score of 50 (standard scores ≥50 indicate anxiety) [12]. The SDQ and SAS questions were set to be skippable so that parents could decide whether to participate.

SURVEY OF TEACHERS:

The questions addressed to teachers were counterparts of those presented to students as a reflection of students’ behaviors and feelings. Teachers were also asked about their anticipation of students’ academic performance based on their experience of teaching online classes. Additionally, the SAS was also addressed to teachers and set to be skippable.

STATISTICAL ANALYSIS:

The answers collected from students, parents, and teachers were compared in the low- (grades 1–3), middle- (grades 4–6), and high- (grades 7–9) grade groups. To simplify the analysis, “strongly agree” and “agree” were both counted as “agree”, while “disagree” and “strongly disagree” were both counted as “disagree”. In the few cases when the answer was “do not know”, it was also counted as “disagree”. The chi-square test was used to identify statistically significant differences between groups. SPSS (Release 24, IBM SPSS Statistics) for Windows was used for data analyses, and p<0.05 was considered significant.

Results

DEMOGRAPHICS:

A total of 2010 valid questionnaires were collected from 15 provinces in China. The students’ questionnaires were completed by children with an average age of 11 years, while the parents who completed questionnaires had children with an average age of 10 years. The gender ratio of the students/children was generally even. Sixty-five percent of the parents’ questionnaires were answered by mothers and 61.1% of the parents were 31–40 years old. We found that 63.3% of the families reported having 1 child taking online classes. The teachers’ questionnaires were completed by teachers teaching online classes – 76.2% were female, 88.1% were under 50 years old, and the teachers sampled were distributed evenly among grades (Table 1).

STUDENT RESULTS:

According to the students’ questionnaires, 55.6% of the students were interested in this homeschooling style, but only 37.7% of them could interact actively with teachers and classmates during online classes. Among students, 93.2% reported not being distracted (playing games or chatting with friends) during online classes, and the percentages increased as the grades increased (89.2%, 94%, and 96.4% for the low-, middle-, and high-grade groups, respectively). Among students, 74.4% reported no fatigue/sleepiness, while 84.6% reported having no back pain. However, the percentages of the high-grade group (63.1% for no fatigue/sleepiness and 72.6% for no back pain) were considerably lower than the averages. Among students, 66.7% reported having less than 1 hour of screen time per day, while 13% reported more than 3 hours. Among students, 82% reported having less than 2 hours of outdoor activity per day. Notably, 42.9% of the high-grade group students reported no outdoor activity time at all, while 39.2% and 40.1% of the low- and middle-grade groups, respectively, reported 1–2 hours per day. Regarding daily sleeping time, 56.3% and 55.2% of the low- and middle-grade groups, respectively, reported 9–10 hours, while 53.6% of the high-grade group reported 7–8 hours. We found that 83.5% of the students preferred classroom-based schooling to homeschooling and other schooling styles (Table 2).

PARENT RESULTS:

We found 41.9% of the surveyed parents believed their children were interested in the homeschooling style. However, 57.4% of them considered that there was not enough interaction during online classes. Among parents, 77.4% considered that their children focused on learning during online classes, and the percentage increased as the grades increased (73.4%, 80.3%, and 81.6% for low, middle, and high grades, respectively). Nevertheless, 50% of them believed that monitoring was required during online classes, with the percentage decreasing as the grades increased (60.9%, 43.1%, and 33.3% for low, middle, and high grades, respectively). Up to 57.2% of the parents reported no fatigue/sleepiness in their children, while 73.3% reported no back pain, but the percentages of the high-grade group (34.5% for no fatigue/sleepiness and 55.2% for no back pain) were considerably lower than the averages. We found that 68.8% of the parents reported that their children had more than 3 hours of screen time per day, which exceeded the recommendation (≤2 hours a day) of the American Academy of Pediatrics [13,14]. Among parents, 43.7% reported no outdoor activity for their children, especially for the high-grade group (60.9%). In particular, parents of students in all grades expressed concern about their children’s eyesight (94.8%, 94%, and 97.7% for low, middle, and high grades, respectively). Regarding their children’s sleeping time, 62.1% of the high-grade group parents reported 7–8 hours, while 59.2% and 59.4% of the low- and middle-grade group parents, respectively, reported 9–10 hours. We found that 95.6% of the parents preferred classroom-based schooling to other schooling styles (Table 3).

TEACHER RESULTS:

Among teachers, 35.2% considered that this homeschooling style would increase their students’ interest in learning, but the percentage decreased quickly as the grades increased (41.5%, 40%, and 16.7% for low, middle, and high grades, respectively). Conversely, 25.7% of the teachers considered that this style would decrease their students’ interest, and the percentage increased quickly as the grades increased (18.3%, 26.3%, and 37.5% for low, middle, and high grades, respectively). We found that 74.3% of the teachers felt they could interact with their students during online classes, although the percentage decreased as the grades increased (80.5%, 76.3%, and 60.4% for low, middle, and high grades, respectively). However, 41.9% believed that their students were truly focused in class. Only 8.6% reported that they could effectively monitor their students during online classes, with the percentage decreasing from 13.4% to 0% as the grades increased. Meanwhile, 52.9% of them considered that homeschooling would have a negative influence on their students’ academic performance. Like the students and the parents, 83.8% of the teachers preferred classroom-based schooling to other styles (Table 4).

SDQ AND SAS SCORES OF PARENTS AND TEACHERS:

The results of the parent-rated SDQ indicated that 17.6% of the students were suspected to have emotional or behavioral problems, and low-grade students were considered more vulnerable than high-grade students (19.3%, 16.7%, and 13.7% for low, middle, and high grades, respectively). Merely 9.6% of the surveyed parents and 17.2% of the surveyed teachers showed elevated levels of anxiety, as indicated in the SAS results. More parents and teachers reported anxiety in the low- and middle-grade groups than in the high-grade group (10.8%, 8.9%, and 6.3% in parents and 18.5%, 20.8%, and 9.4% in teachers for low, middle, and high grades, respectively) (Table 5).

Discussion

The survey results indicated that most of the students, parents, and teachers thought the homeschooling style was acceptable, at least in the beginning. Positive attitudes are believed to have a positive influence on students’ academic performance [15]. Nevertheless, it is notable that 25.7% of the teachers expressed concern that this style could diminish their students’ interest in learning; the higher the grade, the more teachers were concerned.

It is commonly agreed that students’ interest in learning is one of the most important factors influencing their academic performance. To preserve and improve students’ interest in learning during this homeschooling period, it is suggested that the aspect of “teaching” be weakened and the aspect of “learning” be strengthened [16]. Information can be discovered and summarized by students themselves through explorative reading and research assignments. It is even better if the assignments are designed to be associated with real life to make full use of the home environment [17]. Instead of live/recorded broadcasts, multimedia methods (e.g., demonstrative experiments, animated videos, didactic games) can be applied. As the home environment is not dedicated to long-term learning, it is also important to minimize the number of learning tasks. Some subjects (e.g., music and gym) that are not suitable for online learning can be learned in the form of appreciation and family activities to reduce the amount of online time [18].

Interaction is an indicator of class participation. Good interaction in class can increase students’ comprehension and application of knowledge and promote the learning effect [19]. Although 74.3% of the teachers considered that they could interact with students during online classes, 66.3% of the students and 57.4% of the parents did not agree. This contrast probably indicates that teachers can pay attention to a small portion of the students during online classes, while the majority of students were neglected because they were not proactive.

To actively engage students in class interaction, parents can do more than providing the proper equipment. It is a good idea for parents to join their children as partners in online classes so that the students can interact not only with teachers and classmates but also with parents. Parents can note their children’s shortcomings and provide feedback to teachers so that the teaching effect can be evaluated, with necessary adjustments made, and even individual tutoring assigned.

We found that 93.2% of the students reported that they were not distracted (not playing or chatting) during online classes, and 77.4% of the parents believed the same, but only 41.9% of the teachers agreed. Similarly, 50% of the parents considered that their children required monitoring in class, but 37.1% of the teachers thought they could not monitor their students at all. As a result, 52.9% of the teachers anticipated that their students’ academic performance would be adversely affected by this homeschooling style; the higher the grade, the more teachers expressed this negative anticipation.

There are several ways that parents can help students be more focused in class. Instead of telling the children to study hard, parents can set them an example by working hard at home and participating in classes with their children. The going-to-school rhythm can be continued at home by means such as setting up a study room that is similar to the classroom, having the students dressed in school uniforms before classes, and entering the study room as if entering the classroom. For teachers to effectively monitor students in class, online conferences/virtual classroom software can be used as supplements to the live/recorded broadcasts. With the camera on, teachers and students can see each other as they do in the classroom [20].

We found that 68.8% of the parents reported 3 hours and more of daily screen time for their children, but 82% of the students and 84.4% of the parents reported less than 2 hours of outdoor time. In addition, 94.6% of the parents were concerned about their children’s eyesight [21]. Furthermore, although 74.4% of the students reported no fatigue/sleepiness and 84.6% reported no back pain, a clear difference in percentages between the low-/middle- and high-grade groups was reported by both students and parents.

In the present study, eye distance was less than 1 foot when studying, and sleep time of less than 7 hours is a risk factor for myopia [22]. Therefore, it is crucial to reduce students’ screen time to mitigate the negative direct and indirect influences, even though they are being homeschooled [23]. One way to achieve this is to have as few classes a day as possible (as discussed before), and homework can be done in the traditional handwritten way instead of on computers and cellphones [18]. Children should be kept away from TVs and video games after class and be engaged in outdoor exercise (in the garden or even on the balcony) for at least 2 hours a day [24,25]. Correct posture during study and adequate sleeping time for school students should be assured. For after-class time, parents can help students develop hobbies at home, such as cooking, baking, drawing, gardening, and indoor exercise (e.g., skipping, dancing, yoga) [26].

According to the results of the parents’ SDQs, we found that 17.6% of the students were suspected to have emotional or behavioral problems, and low-grade students were considered to be more vulnerable. The percentage of the abnormal range reported in the parents’ SDQs was higher than that previously reported in China (12.1%) [11]. Similarly, the percentage of abnormal ranges reported in the SASs of parents and teachers were considerably higher than those of the general population [27], and both were higher for the low-grade groups than the high-grade groups. Previous studies have shown elevated anxiety levels of parents and teachers with children/students in primary schools [28,29]. Therefore, further investigation is required to determine whether the higher levels of anxiety revealed in the study are related to homeschooling.

We found that 83.5% of students, 95.6% of parents, and 83.8% of teachers preferred classroom-based schooling to other styles. Therefore, it is important to restore the classroom-based schooling style as soon as possible if students’ and teachers’ health and safety can be secured. In cities and provinces where no confirmed and suspected COVID-19 cases have been diagnosed within a certain period of time (e.g., 14 days), schools can be reopened with certain measures (e.g., washing hands and changing masks upon entering, maintaining physical distance in classes, limiting after-class activities) [30].

The present survey has several limitations. Firstly, this study has a cross-sectional design. It was carried out in the first 2 weeks of the homeschooling semester, when many possible problems may not have emerged. Constant attention and further investigation are required to assess the overall situation. Secondly, there is a clear contrast in the daily screen time reported by students and parents. One possible reason is that the students and parents are not in one-to-one correspondence. Another explanation may derive from children’s high self-esteem in that they tend to overestimate their own abilities [31]. This is an interesting topic that can be investigated further in the future. Thirdly, compared to the total number of homeschooling students, the sample size of the survey was very small. Due to the randomness of the survey, not all provinces were included. Nevertheless, this survey managed to investigate multiple factors affecting homeschooling for students, parents, and teachers, without face-to-face communication. The results can help with the formulation and adjustment of homeschooling style, not only in China but also in other countries applying home containment due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Conclusions

The current homeschooling style was generally considered acceptable by the students, parents, and teachers in China during the COVID-19 pandemic, despite the concerns raised by teachers that this style might diminish students’ interest, focus, and academic performance. The long screen time and insufficient outdoor activities reported by parents can severely affect children’s eyesight. Therefore, it is suggested that students continue the going-to-school rhythm at home to cope with these changes, while integrated approaches customized to their age, as well as proper eye-protection measures, should be implemented.

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