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Virtual Learning Is Not Child’s Play for K12 Students

Technology gaps make learning harder for students in lower-income households.

By Anthony P. Carnevale and Megan L. Fasules

Just as COVID-19 has disrupted jobs and careers for many American workers, it has also disrupted school routines for their children. Many elementary, middle, and high schools have closed classroom buildings in an attempt to prevent the virus from spreading. As a result, children are at home, using computers to try to keep up with their lessons online.

This situation can be lonely and frustrating, especially for K–12 students who lack appropriate equipment to plug in to their virtual schools. It also exacerbates inequality — children in lower-income households are just as likely as those in higher-income households to be taking classes online, but they are less likely to have the technology they need for virtual learning when in-person classes are canceled.

While school closures have fluctuated in response to local infection levels, online instruction rates have remained high throughout the pandemic. According to the Household Pulse Survey, most K–12 students moved to some type of distance-learning format in the spring, with 72 percent of households with schoolchildren reporting between April 23 and May 5, 2020, that classes had moved online.¹ Seven months later, those shares had barely budged, with 71 percent of households with schoolchildren reporting between November 25 and December 7, 2020, that classes were conducted online during the current school year.

Meanwhile, resource gaps among students are becoming more substantial than ever as a majority of households with schoolchildren grapple with distance learning. During the pandemic, students in lower-income households have been more likely than students in upper-income households to experience the destabilizing effects of food insecurity, housing instability, and job losses within their households. With lower-income households worried about basic necessities, their children are less likely to have tutors to help with their virtual schoolwork than are children in higher-income households. In addition, students in lower-income households are less likely to have the technological resources — such as computers and internet access — that are essential for virtual learning.

Availability of Computers Improved While Access to Internet Did Not

Overall, access to computers for educational purposes has improved as the pandemic has progressed, but access to the internet has stayed largely the same. In households with K–12 students, 70 percent reported last spring that computers were always available for educational purposes, compared to 78 percent of households this fall. Comparatively, 74 percent of households reported that the internet was always available for educational purposes at the start of the pandemic, compared to 75 percent this fall (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Access to computers for educational purposes has improved as the pandemic has continued, but access to the internet has stayed largely the same.

Source: Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce analysis of data from US Census Bureau, Household Pulse Survey, April 23–May 5, 2020; and November 25–December 7, 2020.

A possible reason for the expansion of computer access is that schools and school districts provided a greater share of computers as the pandemic continued, while students still had to rely on their households for access to the internet. In the early part of the pandemic, students’ schools or school districts provided computers to 39 percent of households and internet access to 2 percent of households. By late fall, the shares had risen to 65 percent for computers and 4 percent for internet access (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Schools and school districts were more likely to provide students with computers than with internet access.

Source: Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce analysis of data from US Census Bureau, Household Pulse Survey, April 23–May 5, 2020; and November 25–December 7, 2020.

Students in Lower-Income Households Have Fewer Resources and Less Live Contact With Teachers

Students’ access to computers and the internet is associated with their household income. In late fall, most households with incomes over $200,000 reported that computers (92 percent) and the internet (90 percent) were always available to children for educational purposes. By contrast, among households with incomes below $25,000, over half reported that computers (61 percent) and the internet (55 percent) were always available (Figure 3).

Figure 3. K–12 students in higher-income households have more access to computers and the internet than their peers in lower-income households.

Source: Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce analysis of data from US Census Bureau, Household Pulse Survey, November 25–December 7, 2020.

Schools and school districts helped bridge some of the gaps in technological resources. They provided computers for 76 percent of households with incomes below $25,000, compared to 51 percent of households with incomes above $200,000. Schools and school districts provided internet access for 12 percent of households with incomes below $25,000, compared to only 1 percent of households with incomes above $200,000. Despite this help, 32 percent of households with incomes below $25,000 still provided computers to their children, and 88 percent of households with incomes below $25,000 had to provide internet access so their children could participate in online classes.

Not only do students in lower-income households have less access to computers and the internet, they also have less live contact with their teachers — whether in person, by phone, or by video. In the late fall, 21 percent of households with incomes under $25,000 reported that their children had no live contact with teachers within the previous seven days, compared to 11 percent of households with incomes over $200,000. Comparatively, 66 percent of households with incomes over $200,000 reported that their children had four or more days of live contact with teachers within the prior week, compared to 51 percent of households with incomes under $25,000 (Figure 4).

Figure 4. Lower-income students have less live contact with their teachers than higher-income students do.

Source: Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce analysis of data from US Census Bureau, Household Pulse Survey, November 25–December 7, 2020.

The “COVID Slide” Could Have Long-Term Implications

The partial, full, or intermittent suspensions of classroom learning implemented to protect students and staff members from the pandemic have led to concern that K–12 students are falling behind in their learning. This so-called “COVID slide” appears to be greater in math than in reading. The long-term impact of the switch from in-person to virtual learning for K–12 students is largely unknown. What is clear, though, is that gaps in access to the technologies necessary for virtual learning are exacerbating the challenges already faced by students in lower-income households. The effects of these gaps will be felt widely in the wake of COVID-19 and may affect current K–12 students for many years.

¹ Our data come from the Household Pulse Survey, a biweekly data collection by the US Census Bureau designed to assess the ongoing impact of COVID-19. The statistics include households with children who are enrolled in private or public school (accounting for approximately 19 percent of all households) and do not include households with children who were officially being homeschooled or households without school-aged children.

Dr. Carnevale is Director and Research Professor and Dr. Fasules is Assistant Research Professor and Research Economist at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. CEW is an independent, nonprofit research and policy institute affiliated with the Georgetown McCourt School of Public Policy that studies the links between education, career qualifications, and workforce demands.

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Anthony P. Carnevale

Anthony P. Carnevale

Director and Research Professor at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, an independent, nonprofit research and policy institute.