Ask an Expert: Dr. Sherry Stewart on the impacts of pandemic homeschooling on parents

- July 13, 2021

A family homeschooling during COVID-19. (Creative Commons photo)
A family homeschooling during COVID-19. (Creative Commons photo)

For families across Canada and around the world, the pandemic disrupted most parts of their lives. From childcare to working from home, COVID-19 forced parents to alter their routines and take on new responsibilities. For many, that involved educating their kids at home.

A new study by researchers at Dalhousie University has found that may have come at a price.

The paper, recently published in Social Sciences, surveyed almost 800 couples across Canada about their experiences homeschooling their children and their alcohol consumption in April 2020 when schools were closed due to the pandemic.

Danika DesRoches, a graduate student in Dalhousie’s Department of Psychology and Neuroscience and first author of the study, and Dr. Sherry Stewart, a professor in Dalhousie’s Department of Psychiatry and senior author of the study, found that homeschooling couples experienced more conflict between family and work than couples who were not homeschooling. The results also suggest women who spent more time homeschooling tended to drink more frequently than women who did less homeschooling.

We spoke with Dr. Stewart about the results and their implications for families and public policy.

What were you hoping to find out with this research?

We were hoping to gather information on how mandated homeschooling during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic affected conflict between work and family duties, and alcohol use, in romantic couples. We were also interested in learning how these effects might differ by gender.

How does this mesh with other research on the effects of the pandemic, homeschooling and family dynamics?

Our findings fall in line with expert predictions and research showing that the psychological consequences of the pandemic are especially negative for those with children at home. Our results are also consistent with other studies finding that parents are perceiving mandated homeschooling as a difficult and stressful situation – one that some parents have described as “impossible.” Our study provides additional empirical evidence demonstrating that the increased burden of homeschooling has fallen more to women than men. Our findings also fit with previous research showing that it is women who show stronger links between pandemic-related psychological distress and drinking.

What did you discover with this research

We discovered that couples who were homeschooling experienced more conflict between their work and family duties compared to couples who were not homeschooling. This was particularly true for women with regards to their family responsibilities interfering with their work. We also found that women spent more time than men in homeschooling their children. Women who spent more time homeschooling tended to drink more frequently than women who spent less time homeschooling; this relationship between investment in homeschooling and drinking was not seen among the men. Further, the more time women spent homeschooling, the more frequently their male partners drank. In contrast, the more time men spent homeschooling, the less frequently their female partners drank.

Our results suggest that school closures and the loss of supports for parents can have substantial consequences both for work–family conflict and alcohol use. Also, our findings tell us that the responsibility of educating children at home during the pandemic has largely fallen to women. In addition, we are seeing something called “cross-over effects,” where the strain a woman is experiencing in relation to homeschooling her children may be “contagious” – crossing over to her partner and causing him to drink to manage the increased stress and strain. Lastly, our findings suggest that more egalitarian division of homeschooling labour between partners can have protective effects for women’s coping during the pandemic.

How concerning are these findings for women in particular

Our finding that familial duties are interfering with women’s work is concerning given that this could have consequences on her work performance, potentially affecting future advancement opportunities in her workplace or even leading to unemployment. This may contribute to the predicted pandemic-related “she-cession,” with concerning adverse economic impacts of the pandemic expected for women. Also, it is concerning that greater involvement in homeschooling is linked with increased drinking frequency in women, given that increased drinking may interfere with her mental health and her ability to parent most successfully through this challenging time. Further, men’s increased drinking could put homeschooling mothers at risk for escalating conflict/domestic violence, given links of male drinking to intimate partner violence.

How should governments and agencies prepare for the next pandemic

We recommend educating couples about the importance of more equal division of homeschooling labour between partners as a way of preventing adverse effects of homeschooling on the mental health and alcohol use of both women and men. Our findings should be considered in decision making about the pros and cons of keeping schools open during future pandemics. We also recommend that families be better supported by the educational system when pandemic conditions necessitate educating children at home. In addition, more mental health and alcohol-misuse supports should be allocated for parents having to homeschool during future pandemics given the links of mandatory homeschooling to work-family strain and alcohol use.


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