July 29 (UPI) -- More than 40% of parents worry their children will catch COVID-19 at school this fall and pass the virus on to more vulnerable family members, a survey released Wednesday by Nationwide Children's Hospital in Ohio found.
Just under 40% fear their children will fall behind academically and socially if online learning remains the norm when the school year starts, the researchers who conducted the survey said.
"It's no secret the COVID-19 pandemic has created many concerns and uncertainties about the upcoming school year," Parker Huston, one of the researchers who headed the survey, told UPI.
"Each area of the country is managing different local and regional expectations and regulations, so there is not a single correct answer to how schools can best serve the children in their communities this coming year," said Huston, a pediatric psychologist at Nationwide Children's Hospital.
Huston and his colleagues surveyed nearly 700 parents with children in kindergarten through the 12th grade from across the United States between June 18 and 22 to "find out what [they] are most worried about," he said.
They hope to use the findings to shape clinical programs designed to help parents and children cope with whatever schooling occurs during the pandemic, Huston said.
Overall, 90% of parents surveyed said they had "concerns," while nearly half said there were too many "unknowns," such as whether children will be required to wear masks, the researchers said.
Forty-four percent of parents worried that their children would catch COVID-19 at school and spread it to family members when they got home, and 37% said they worried that their children would be exposed to germs in school, according to the researchers.
But 38% of responding parents wondered whether their children would fall behind academically if online learning continues, and 36% expressed concerns about the challenges associated with online learning -- describing it as a "difficult learning environment," the researchers said.
In addition, 36% said they were worried about their child's "emotional well-being" should schools remain closed, suggesting that they might have "trouble feeling connected" if classes are held online, the researchers said.
Just 5% of parents surveyed said they had no concerns about schooling in the fall, the survey indicated.
"The results show that while we need to continue to take precautions to stop the spread of COVID-19, it's important to focus on the mental health implications, as well," Huston said.
President Donald Trump has pushed for schools to reopen in person for the 2020-21 academic year after nearly all educational facilities were closed nationwide in March to control the spread of COVID-19.
Public health experts, however, have questioned whether it's possible to safely do so as cases of the virus continue to rise in many parts of the country.
Individual school districts have announced different plans for educational offerings this fall. Some said they will reopen fully, while others, including New York City, the nation's largest system, said they will offer a mix of online and in-person instruction.
Education officials must balance the learning, social and mental health needs of children in making their reopening decisions, said Jennifer Nuzzo, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.
While evidence suggests children are at lower risk for severe COVID-19 and for spreading the virus, not all risks have been eliminated, she said during a conference call with reporters on July 16.
In some communities, particularly those with high numbers of families living in poverty, schools not only deliver educational services but also food and other care needs for children, Nuzzo said.
Although there has been limited research on potential COVID-19 spread in schools, the infectious risk posed by a person with a mild case of the disease breathing normally is low, a study published Monday by JAMA Network Open found.
However, those with a more severe form of the virus "pose an infection risk in poorly ventilated closed, environments," the authors, Michael Riediker and Dai-Hua Tsai, of the Swiss Center for Occupational and Environmental Health, wrote.
"The most important thing is that children, and their parents, [must be] prepared to be flexible and respond to whatever decisions are made in their district," Huston said.