Nearly 93% of people in households with school-age children reported their children engaged in some form of “distance learning” from home but lower-income households were less likely to rely on online resources.
The COVID-19 pandemic in the spring dramatically shifted the way children were being educated. Results from the U.S. Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey provide a unique snapshot of just how much.
Perhaps the most salient change was closure of schools forcing students to continue their education from home.
The COVID-19 pandemic in the spring dramatically shifted the way children were being educated.
From May 28 to June 2, when many school districts across the country are normally in session, 80% of people living with children distance learning reported the children were using online resources. About 20% were using paper materials sent home by the school. (The categories overlap because respondents could select more than one category.)
Results from earlier weeks of Household Pulse Survey data were similar. Most households used online educational resources to help kids complete the school year from home.
Data from Week 5 of the Household Pulse Survey show that high-income households with children were using online resources at higher rates than those in lower-income households. (Figure 1).
For example, in households with incomes of $100,000 or more, 85.8% of people with children reported using online resources for distance learning.
By contrast, only 65.8% of people in households with incomes of less than $50,000 and 76.5% of households with incomes of $50,000-$99,999 reported that children were using online resources.
Conversely, low-income households reported higher rates of using paper materials sent home from school than high-income households do.
Households with income less than $50,000 (21.1%) and households with income from $50,000-$99,999 (19.1%) were significantly more likely to use paper materials sent home for distance learning than households with income of $100,000 or more (15.3%).
There were not significant percentage differences for the use of paper materials in households with income less than $50,000 and $50,000-$99,999. People 18 and over in households with children in school who did not report their household income (4.9% of the total sample) are excluded from Figure 1.
Patterns of digital inequality can be attributed to socioeconomic differences in the use of online resources.
Inequality in access to computers and the internet has been widely documented. Lower-income households are less likely than higher-income ones to have internet access and computer availability.
The Household Pulse Survey (Education Table 3) findings reflect that inequality. Lower-income households were less likely to report computer and internet availability for educational purposes, compared with higher-income households.
In addition to the disparities in access, low-income households may have lower levels of internet and computer proficiency, competing priorities and/or (in ordinary times) children attend schools that are not well equipped to provide online instruction.
The COVID-19 pandemic forced households and school districts to be flexible as they adapted to a changes in the delivery of education.
Household Pulse Survey results confirm that the most socioeconomically disadvantaged households do not use online educational resources for distance learning at the same rates as higher-income households.
As educators, students, and parents prepare for the next school year with some uncertainty, school administrators may examine how existing forms of educational and digital inequality interact.
The Census Bureau designed the Household Pulse Survey with input from other federal agency partners, including the National Center for Education Statistics and the Department of Education, to collect and disseminate data in near real time to provide vital insights into how American households are faring during the COVID-19 pandemic. We collected the first round of data for the April 23-May 5 period.
Kevin Mcelrath is a survey statistician in the Census Bureau’s Social, Economic and Housing Statistics Division.