Last spring, after teaching their kids at home for most of the 2020-21 school year, Rob and Melissa Seger sent their eldest daughter back to school in March.

By then, Rob Seger, who is a cancer survivor and has epilepsy, was fully immunized. Students, educators and other school employees were wearing masks at school. Personal and building hygiene was being stepped-up, so the couple felt like a lot was being done to minimize the risk of COVID-19 exposure at school.

Still, they elected to keep their twin daughters, then in kindergarten, home for the remainder of the school year. The girls had received their instruction remotely, and it was going well, so there didn’t seem to be any reason to switch up their routine with just a few months left in the school year, said Melissa Seger.

Although it didn’t seem like it at the time, and because most Utah students attended school in-person most days last year (with remote learning one or two days a week, depending on the school district or charter school), the Segers’ decision to keep their kindergartners learning from home — despite having the choice to attend in person — was more typical of what parents did nationally.

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The latest American Family Survey, released Tuesday in Washington, D.C., indicates more than half of respondents whose children did not attend school in person chose not to return to the classroom when they had the option. This was the case for more than 6 in 10 Democrats as well as just under half of Republicans, the survey found.

The American Family Survey, done jointly by the Deseret News and BYU’s Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy, is now in its seventh year. It is an annual nationally representative study that looks at how families live, manage or cope with current events. YouGov, a global public opinion and data company, fielded the survey of 3,000 adults June 25 to July 8, just before the COVID-19 delta variant became widespread and prior to the start of the current school year. The survey’s margin of error is plus or minus 2 percentage points.

For the Segers, it was a matter of “sticking with what’s working versus changing it up again, because what we’re learning might be different than what they’re learning at school, and it might just be overwhelming,” said Melissa Seger.

Vivian Seger, 6, does schoolwork at her home in South Jordan on Thursday, Oct. 7, 2021. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Parents surveyed said their children’s grades and learning suffered during the pandemic’s aftermath with nearly 20% of parents revealing that their children’s grades worsened and nearly one-third reporting declines in learning.

‘Just chaos’

Since the start of the pandemic, Charlie and Kimi Bradley’s children pivoted from in-person learning to remote learning as numbers of COVID-19 cases spiked and abated, and public health guidance evolved.

There were also times when North Carolina’s Wake County Public School System, where the Bradleys’ three daughters attended school, observed hybrid schedules — a mix of in-school and virtual learning.

The Bradleys had the added challenge of juggling their daughters’ school schedules with their professional responsibilities, he the CEO of a foundation and she, a nurse.

“It was just chaos. It was just complete chaos and I think a lot of people kind of felt that way. I mean, we just never knew” when the schools would pivot to another schedule or format and the family would have to figure out a means to adjust, he said.

Remote learning was difficult for all their children, ages 12, 10 and 8. Their youngest and eldest daughters are highly social and missed interacting with their classmates and teachers in person.

Their 10-year-old has learning disabilities and after a couple hours of screen time, “she just shut down,” Charlie Bradley said.

“I think they all definitely took a step back in their learning over the last year and a half,” he said.

“Virtual learning just wasn’t right for my kids.”

Their eldest daughter is now enrolled in a charter school, which has been more nimble in adjusting its school schedule compared to the Wake County Public School System, which is one of the largest in the United States. It has 194 schools and serves some 162,000 learners in Raleigh and surrounding communities.

Meanwhile, the Bradleys’ younger daughters have returned to public school.

Melissa Seger helps daughter Gwendolyn, 6, with schoolwork at their home in South Jordan on Thursday, Oct. 7, 2021. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

The Segers considered sending their eldest daughter back to school this fall but decided against it after the Salt Lake County Council rejected a health order that called for wearing masks inside of elementary schools. The order singled out elementary schools because children under age 12 are not yet eligible for COVID-19 vaccines.

With the delta variant rising, the Segers worried about their children being exposed to the virus at school and carrying it home, which their daughter understood.

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“She’s like, ‘I’m fine with doing home-schooling, but please, I don’t want to do virtual again,’” Melissa Seger said.

“She really had a hard time with it. For whatever reason, she was fine at first and then over time, it just really became difficult for her to learn. So this year, we decided to keep them home.”

Parents who responded to the American Family Survey expressed similar challenges. Nearly one-third of parents said their children’s learning suffered and 19% said their grades were worse.

The ‘COVID-19 slide’

National organizations that have examined the so-called “COVID-19 slide” in learning report that math skills were particularly impacted. Students were “likely to show much smaller learning gains, returning with less than 50% of the learning gains and in some grades, nearly a full year behind what we would observe in normal conditions,” according to the Northwest Evaluation Association, a nonprofit testing organization,

Students returned to school in 2020 “with roughly 70% of the learning gains in reading relative to a typical school year,” according to the association.

Meanwhile, the consulting firm McKinsey & Co. predicted more significant learning losses for Black, Hispanic and low-income students. Access to technology is a significant factor as well as access to a quiet space to participate in remote learning with minimal distractions, access to high-speed internet and parental academic supervision.

The Segers’ eldest daughter, Lydia, now a fifth grader, fell behind in math, but the family found a math program “that’s really working well and it’s getting her on to grade level,” her mother reports.

“I do think she was a little behind, which is unfortunate because she was a little ahead before the pandemic,” Melissa Seger said.

The full extent of pandemic learning loss is not yet understood. Many school systems experienced downturns in enrollment during the 2020-21 school, which was attributed to parents electing to teach their kids at home, shifting to virtual learning or not enrolling kindergartners in school.

Even in kid-rich Utah, public school enrollment declined for the first time since 2000, which was a worrisome trend, particularly among the youngest learners.

“There’s a lot of data at different stages in a child’s academic progress where they need to reach certain benchmarks by a certain age or they do fall behind academically,” Rich Nye, superintendent of the Granite School District, “which does have an impact, literally, for the rest of their lives.”