In March 2020, the coronavirus pandemic changed students’, families’, and teachers’ lives almost overnight. School buildings were closed, libraries shut down, playgrounds were locked, and childcare facilities were shuttered. Life and learning moved online. 

To understand how these changes affected families and students, particularly those that live below the national median household income of $75,000 a year, Overdeck Family Foundation, alongside Noggin, Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Grable Foundation, and the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, provided grant support for a research survey that aimed to unpack how lower-income families handled remote learning throughout the pandemic.  

The survey was conducted by market research firm SSRS in March and April of 2021, one year into the pandemic, when parents could reflect on a full year of remote learning and pandemic parenting, and also look forward to a return to “normal” due to the availability of COVID vaccines. It was done by cellular and landline telephones and includes the experiences of more than 1,000 parents of children ages three to thirteen, all with total household incomes below the national median of $75,000.

One main question we aimed to unpack through the research was the effect of unequal access to broadband and digital devices, which has been top-of-mind for educators and policymakers for years. When the pandemic shifted school home, a stable internet connection and working digital device became an essential versus a nice-to-have. With digital inequality disproportionately affecting students in lower-income families, we wanted to learn more about how families navigated an educational landscape that required more connectivity and, in many cases, offered less resources for students. 

The resulting report, published by New America and written by Vikki Katz, Associate Professor at the School of Communication and Information at Rutgers University, and Victoria Rideout, Founder and President of VJR Consulting, provides timely, pointed, and thought-provoking insights on the challenges of learning at home while being under-connected, as well as some unexpected bright spots from a year of pandemic learning and parenting. Below are the key takeaways. 

Download the report

The good

  • While remote learning was a stressor for parents, many reported gaining new insights into their children’s schoolwork and learning habits, assets that can benefit families and schools moving forward. 
    • Two-thirds of parents (66%) say they know more about their child’s strengths and weaknesses as a learner now than they did before the pandemic.
    • Many parents are more confident and comfortable being involved in their child’s education. Forty-three percent say they are more comfortable communicating with their children’s teachers now than they were before the pandemic, and 44% say they are more confident helping their child with their schoolwork than they were before remote learning.
    • Black and Hispanic parents, as well as families with household incomes below the poverty line, reported the largest gains across these measures. 
  • Family reading patterns shifted during the pandemic.
    • Twenty-three percent of parents with three- to nine-year-olds say they have spent more time reading with their children during the pandemic than they did previously. Only 10% said they were reading less frequently than before.  
  • Parents and children help each other learn with technology, even more than they did in 2015.
    • More than half of parents (55%) say they often or sometimes help their 10- to 13-year-olds with computers or the internet. A nearly identical proportion (56%) say their 10- to 13-year-olds often or sometimes help them with technology.
    • Less-educated parents and those with the lowest incomes rely on their children for technology help more than other parents do. For example, 65% of parents without a high school diploma say their children often or sometimes help them, compared with 33% of parents with a college degree. Similarly, parents with incomes below the federal poverty level are more likely to say their 10- to 13-year-olds help them with specific tech-related tasks than parents with incomes above the poverty level.

Family reading patterns shifted during the pandemic—for the better.

The bad

  • Rates of home internet access and computer ownership are up substantially from 2015, but many children from families with incomes below the national median still lack the essentials.  
    • One in seven children still does not have broadband internet access at home. 
    • Cost is the primary reason many families still lack internet access.
    • Most children (88% of all three- to thirteen-year-olds) now have a computer at home, but one in eight children (12%) still do not.
  • Even among families with computers and broadband internet access at home, a majority are “under-connected,” meaning that they report insufficient and unreliable access to the internet and internet-connecting devices. 
    • The proportion of lower-income families who are under-connected hardly changed between 2015 and 2021—despite large increases in rates of home broadband and computer access.
    • Fifty-six percent of those who have broadband say their service is too slow.
    • Thirty-four percent of those who only have internet access via a smartphone or tablet say they hit the data limits in their plan at least once in the past year, preventing them from being consistently connected to the internet.
    • Fifty-nine percent of those who have a computer at home say it doesn’t work properly or runs too slowly.
  • The majority of students learning remotely this year experienced disruptions in their education due to being under-connected.  
    • Thirty-four percent of students were unable to participate in class or complete their schoolwork due to lack of internet access.
    • Among parents with mobile-only or dial-up internet, half (52%) said their lack of internet access prevented their children from participating or completing their work at some point over the past year.
  • The digital challenges of remote learning hit families in the lowest income bracket and those headed by Black or Hispanic parents hardest. 
    • Among those with incomes below the federal poverty level, 65% reported that lacking access to a computer or the internet had prevented their children from participating in class, completing their schoolwork, or had necessitated participating in class via a smartphone. Forty-eight percent of students in families living above the poverty line (but still below the median annual household income of $75,000) reported these same challenges. 
    • Majorities of Hispanic (66%) and Black (56%) parents also reported that their children experienced these obstacles, compared with 42% of White parents.

The proportion of lower-income families who are under-connected hardly changed between 2015 and 2021—despite large increases in rates of home broadband and computer access.

While this study provides us some areas to celebrate from the past year, including rising family engagement in schooling and reading patterns, it also makes clear that the digital divide remains a problem and has measurable consequences on children’s ability to learn, especially when school operates in a virtual or hybrid setting. While internet access has increased enormously for lower-income families with school-aged kids since 2015, the proportion of these families who are under-connected has not shifted at all

As we look to the future and the new normal, we have a unique opportunity to consider what we have learned from over a year of remote learning. It is clear that there is still much to do to achieve digital equity, and that fixing the problem goes beyond providing students access to devices. Even in-school learning requires at-home studying, making the issue of under-connected families critical to solve to ensure equitable learning opportunities for all of America’s students.

Please download the full report here for a deeper analysis of the data and examples of qualitative feedback to the survey questions. 

Download the report