Concerns About Reopening Schools, Toll of COVID-19 Split by Party Lines, Background

July 23, 2020

Pandemic anxiety continues to hurt Americans' mental health, while concerns about the impact of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) splits by party affiliation and background.

The disproportionate impact of the pandemic, both psychological ones and practical ones about the effect of school reopenings in the fall, were illustrated in new poll results released Thursday.

The July 2020 KFF Health Tracking Poll of US adults found a little more than half said pandemic anxieties are taking a toll on their mental health; most also feel that the worst fallout from coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) is yet to come.

In addition, parents from communities of color and those with lower incomes have more worries than white and higher-income parents regarding reopening schools. Education, one of the key social determinants of health, has been highlighted in recent weeks as districts across the country announce a variety of attempts to reopen in the fall, including with remote instruction.

The nationally representative random sample of 1313 adults was conducted by phone July 14-19.

Overall, 60% of respondents think the worst of the pandemic has yet to come, up from 50% in May. One in 5 adults (20%) think that the worst of the outbreak has happened.

But the results also illustrate deep political divisions. Eight in 10 Democrats (79%) and a majority of independents (57%) think the worst of the pandemic has not yet arrived. That contrasts with 31% of Republicans who think the worst of the virus is over; 23% of Republicans believe that COVID-19 is or will be a major problem.

Mental Health Effects

The proportion of adults who said that worry or stress related to COVID-19 rose 14 percentage points from May to 53%. One in 4 (26%) said the virus has had a major impact on their mental health, while 28% said it has had a minor impact.

Subgroups most likely to report negative mental health impacts include women (57%), black adults (68%), and those who have had problems paying household bills during the past 3 months (71%).

Just over half of adults (52%) cited specific ways in which the pandemic has affected their mental health:

  • 36% cited sleep problems
  • 32% cited poor appetite or overeating
  • 18% reported frequent headaches or stomachaches
  • 18% reported problems controlling their temper
  • 12% reported increased drug or alcohol use or worsening chronic health conditions

Education Concerns

Adults also responded differently to questions about education, reflecting the health disparities of the pandemic.

The majority (91%) of parents who are from communities of color said they are either “very worried” or “somewhat worried” about their child getting sick with COVID-19 if they attend school in the fall, compared with 55% of white parents.

Compared with white parents, majorities of people of color said they were worried about other health aspects of in-person instruction:

  • 92% said they are worried about teachers and other staff getting sick with coronavirus
  • 91% are worried about children being unable or unwilling to physically distance
  • 90% are worried that they or a family member will get sick with coronavirus
  • 88% are worried that their schools are not equipped to comply with public health recommendations.

Among white parents, only 49% said they were concerned that their schools could not abide by health recommendations to control the spread of the virus.

  • 69% said they are worried about teachers and other staff getting sick with coronavirus
  • 60% are worried about children being unable or unwilling to physically distance
  • 53% are worried that they or a family member will get sick with coronavirus

Overall, parents of children aged 5-17 are "very worried or "somewhat worried" about the fallout from a lack of in-person instruction:

  • 67% have social/emotional concerns
  • 55% have academic concerns
  • 51% are worried they will lose income
  • 47% worry about paying enough attention to their children if they are working from home
  • 40% worry about social services
  • 31% worry about technology
  • 24% worry that their children won't have enough to eat when they are home.

These percentages were all higher in parents of color.

The poll was released as a flurry of reports from across the country note that higher income and white parents are forming so-called pandemic learning pods, which are privately organized and paid for by small groups of families to offer private in-person teaching. Some observers, like a school staffer in Atlanta, are concerned that the pandemic pods will worsen education disparities and recreate segregated learning systems.