Regular, live teacher interaction. School-provided access to Wi-Fi crucial for learning at home. A clear path forward after high school as students move beyond K-12.
Those all remained a challenge for many families of school-age children due to the COVID-19 pandemic based on household surveys by the U.S. Census Bureau toward the end of the most recent school year—important context for school leaders welcoming those students back amid continued upheaval.
The EdWeek Research Center’s analysis of the U.S. Census Bureau’s Household Pulse data spotlights the pandemic’s continued impact on at-home factors tied to students’ education, even as some states have maintained a status quo or even posted improvements in critical areas, including ed-tech, teacher interactions, and postsecondary plans. This analysis is based on surveys conducted April 14 through April 26, at a time when students had not yet left for the summer break, even in some states with early closing dates.
COVID-19 continues to impact how often students interact with their teachers.
Nationally, 65 percent of households with students enrolled in school interacted with teachers for four or more days during the week. But these virtual or in-person interaction levels varied geographically. For example, more than 8 in 10 households in Kansas and Montana said they had real-time contact with their teachers in some form for four or more days a week. But only about half said that was the case in New York and Washington states. Such interaction was less frequent in Hawaii (45 percent) and Delaware (35 percent).
Post-high school plans have been scrambled.
Nationwide 66 percent of households in which someone was taking or was intending to take postsecondary courses said that the coronavirus changed their postsecondary plans. But the numbers varied from 83 percent in Maine to just 50 percent in South Carolina.
Technology access is on the upswing but remains varied by state.
Eighty-three percent of households with students enrolled in school said they always had access to computer devices as of late April. In addition, throughout the pandemic, access to the internet improved from 74 percent in April-May 2020 to 81 percent as of this spring. Most students and their families who have Wi-Fi access provided their own; only 3 percent of students got Wi-Fi from their schools.
A closer look at the data illustrates how the pandemic affected factors significant to the educational outcomes of students nationwide.
How often do you see your teacher?
The Census data show that even after a year of the pandemic, not all students received consistent, daily guidance from teachers. Specifically, the survey asked households how many days students had real-time, non-prerecorded virtual or in-person contact with their teachers in the previous week. Nationally, 35 percent said they had not had at least four days of interaction.
But the numbers varied widely by state. At least three-fourths of households with students in Kansas, Montana, Louisiana, Nebraska, Wyoming, South Dakota, Idaho, and Iowa documented having four or more days of interaction with their teachers.
Families with students that reported less often interacting with their teachers for four or more days included New York (51 percent), Washington (51 percent), Hawaii (45 percent), and Delaware (35 percent).
“Unfortunately, that doesn’t surprise me,” Robin Lake, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, which has been following the pandemic’s impact on schooling, said of the Census finding that a third or more of households experienced what they saw as less than everyday interaction with teachers. “If you ran those numbers [based on] low-income students of color, students with disabilities, I’d bet you’d see probably higher numbers.”
In part, that may be a reflection of how families saw the actual instruction their children were getting at the time of the survey, toward the end of the second pandemic-disrupted school year.
“I think it’s really important for people to understand that when schools say they’re ‘open,’ you need to look underneath the hood and understand what that really means in terms of student-teacher interactions,” Lake said.
Julia Kaufman, a senior policy researcher at RAND Corporation who co-wrote a report on the inequities of virtual learning, said the responses may also reflect levels of in-school versus remote learning in certain states and regions.
“When [students] are remote, that’s the big question: What’s happening in those situations?” Kaufman said. “And that’s where we don’t have a lot of great data, but we do know that kids that were remote, according to teachers, got less instructional time.”
COVID continues to shake the postsecondary landscape
The Census survey found that the pandemic’s impact isn’t limited to the daily routine of elementary and secondary schooling. That’s evident in the data showing that two-thirds of households nationwide in which a member was enrolled or planned to enroll in postsecondary courses had to change those plans.
(The survey captured both those under 18 and any older members of the household who might have postsecondary plans.)
Respondents cited changes in plans to take classes this fall, canceled classes, changes in the learning format, and decisions to take fewer or more classes, change a major, or even go to another institution.
There was some variation in terms of college plans needing to change based on the regional location of the student.
Plans changed the most in the Northeast (71 percent), followed by the Western region of the country (68 percent) and the Midwest (67 percent), with the South having the least number of students changing their post-high school plans at 62 percent.
South Carolina was where changes to postsecondary plans were least common at about 50 percent, followed by Mississippi at 51 percent.
On the other end of the spectrum, 83 percent of households from Maine said students’ postsecondary plans changed, followed by Rhode Island at 79 percent and Connecticut at 78 percent.
That all aligns pretty well with an analysis done by the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University. The center found “a lot of households reporting changes in plans which appeared most often to be canceling plans altogether to attend school,” said Director Thomas Brock.
The question is, what will happen going forward, given the continued twists and turns in the pandemic.
“I was feeling pretty optimistic a couple of months ago with ... vaccinations and all the rest,” said Brock. “And then it seems like this summer, with the Delta variant, things are a little bit uncertain again. I do still think there will be at least a modest improvement from the worst of the pandemic in the community college sector.”
The ed-tech picture shows both bright spots and soft spots
During the April survey period, the number of households with students nationally who had access to the internet for academic purposes increased by 7 percentage points from April 2020, going from 74 percent to 81 percent.
The picture was even better in some places. Nine out of 10 school-aged children in a household always had access to computers in the District of Columbia and in seven states: Connecticut, Delaware, North Dakota, Virginia, Maryland, Oregon, and Washington.
But 70 percent or less of students from Wyoming, Nebraska, Montana, and South Dakota always reported having access.
North Dakota stood out as both improving and being ahead of the pack in terms of internet access. In the spring of 2020, 83 percent of households with K-12 students indicated their children always had internet access for educational purposes, trailing only Rhode Island.
But while most students nationally had access to the internet, that access wasn’t free: Of those households where children, to some degree or another, had internet access, 96 percent said that they got their internet paid for by someone in the household or family, rather than by the school or district.
Note: The Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey measures the pandemic’s economic and social impact on families nationwide. The first wave of this experimental data source was initiated by the Census in April of 2020. Currently, the Census plans to collect the latest wave of data until Oct. 11 of this year.
Natalie Gubbay, Intern contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the September 01, 2021 edition of Education Week as Households With School-Aged Kids See Continued Educational Hurdles as Pandemic Drags On