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Where Families Are Feeling Pandemic Impacts the Worst

By Alex Harwin & Yukiko Furuya — January 19, 2021 8 min read
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The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare some of the educational and resource inequities facing families across the country in a host of areas, from access to technology and time for home-based learning to the literal bread-and-butter issues of household finances and food for the table.

The EdWeek Research Center’s analysis of recent U.S. Census Bureau survey data on families with children paints a picture of regional winners and losers, areas of progress even during the pandemic, and places where deficits remain entrenched amid the continued disruption of school and family life.

Among the key takeaways from the Census surveys conducted Oct. 28 through Nov. 9 of last year:

  • COVID-19 continues to squeeze many households with children enrolled in school. Nationally, 17 percent of such families said they lost employment income due to pandemic-related reasons during the survey period. But the impact is uneven: 19 percent of families in the Northeast and the South documented job loss or the inability to find a job, compared with 12 percent in the Midwest.

  • Families in every state began experiencing hunger during the pandemic. Nationwide, 16 percent of families who said they had enough to eat before the pandemic now say their children sometimes or often have to go without food.

  • Technology access remains uneven. Seventy-nine percent of households with children said they always had access to computer devices as of November, up from 71 percent in April. That same improvement wasn’t true for access to the home internet service crucial for remote instruction. That remained stagnant at around 75 percent.

  • States and regions vary widely in how much they think the pandemic has disrupted normal schooling. Nationally, 27 percent of households with students said that their current learning time was “much less than [in] a school day before the coronavirus pandemic.” But the numbers vary widely by state—from 42 percent in Nevada and Oregon to just 15 percent each in Florida and South Dakota, where schools were less likely to have adopted remote learning in response to the pandemic.

A closer look at the data illustrates how the pandemic’s effect on factors affecting readiness to learn—much like the disease itself—varies in location and in intensity.

Food insecurity is a regional issue

That disparity is especially true in an area that hits close to home: food insecurity. For example, the proportion of families reporting that they no longer have enough to eat is the highest in Mississippi, at 38 percent, and the lowest in Maine and South Dakota, each at 5 percent.

QC Food Insecurity (1)

Regionally, the data show that pandemic-induced hunger issues are most severe in the West at 19 percent, and in the South at 18 percent. Overall, the Northeast appears to be struggling the least on this front at 12 percent, in contrast to having the largest earning loss relative to other regions. Additionally, only 14 percent of Midwestern households documented having issues with food security.

“Communities that had the highest levels of food insecurity prior to the pandemic have also been hit the hardest,” said Emily Engelhard, the managing director of research at Feeding America, an umbrella organization for food banks across the country. “Like Mississippi, these states in the South have higher levels of poverty, higher levels of unemployment. Across a number of those different socioeconomic indicators, you are seeing that people are worse off, and so food insecurity is going to fall into those social determinants of health.”

Engelhard describes a rise in demand, a drop in the number of volunteers, and supply chain problems all putting pressure on the charitable systems assisting those without food.

She and her team are currently piloting various programs, including giving clients the ability to preorder groceries from food banks. She is interested in seeing what works and what can be continued, if not expanded, after the pandemic.

On the related issue of income loss for families as a result of the pandemic, reasons cited in the survey data included falling ill with the virus, caring for sick loved ones, and children whose schools or day cares closed.

There’s uneven access to computers and Wi-Fi

With so many children learning from home, access to technology has become more important than ever.

QC Device Access (1)

“Schools have done a pretty good job at handing out devices in part because they had a lot of devices that were sitting on laptop carts,” said Evan Marwell, the founder of EducationSuperHighway, a nonprofit that works to alleviate internet access disparities. “Internet connectivity is a totally different animal.”

Marwell said school districts during the pandemic have mostly tried to do deals with carriers for mobile hotspots. He believes the better approach is working with cable companies to get families broadband directly. Marwell notes how hotspots often have coverage issues; often, the quality of the signal being available, especially in low-income neighborhoods, is weak and makes it difficult to do things like complete homework assignments.

Access to technology also is regionally inconsistent. Even though computers’ availability for educational purposes has improved across all regions, the South is still behind at 75 percent compared to the Northeast, at 83 percent, or the West, at 82 percent.

Wi-Fi access, meanwhile, has improved in the Northeast, going from 78 percent to 83 percent, and in the Midwest, increasing from 72 percent to 77 percent since April. But it has remained mostly stagnant in the South, decreasing to 71 percent from 72 percent. And the West Coast dropped in terms of internet access, from 77 percent in the spring to 75 percent in the more recent survey period.

QC Internet Availability (1)

“The more rural the state is, the worse off they’re going to be,” said Marwell, noting that there’s been little new infrastructure building during the pandemic in places that didn’t already have it. “And so when you talk about the Southern states and places like Mississippi, like there’s huge rural populations there.”

Surveys give a snapshot of lost learning time

It’s no surprise that the pandemic has affected the number of hours students spend on their education, and the Census data bear that out.

The Census asked specifically how much time students typically had spent on learning activities over the past seven days compared to the length of their school days before the coronavirus pandemic.

The South, at 24 percent, and Midwest, at 28 percent, were less likely to report having lost hours than the Northeast at 31 percent and the West at 30 percent.

In states at the lowest end of the spectrum for lost instructional time—including South Dakota, Florida, Nebraska, and Wyoming—households were the most likely to say that their children had not experienced remote learning, canceled classes, or any other changes resulting from the pandemic.

Nationally, most families with K-12 students in 44 states and the District of Columbia say classes normally taught in person had moved to some form of distance learning due to the pandemic during the 2020-21 school year.

QC Distnce Learning (1)

The percentage of households experiencing the shift ranged from more than 90 percent in Oregon and the District of Columbia to less than 40 percent in Nebraska and South Dakota.

Students in the West at 82 percent were more likely to shift to distance learning than their counterparts in the Midwest at 64 percent. Those living in the South and Northeast changed to remote learning 69 percent and 70 percent, respectively. Only 1 percent of households in California and Oregon noted zero changes to their children’s education.

One in 10 households say their children’s education did not change due to the pandemic because their schools did not close for in-person instruction. That ranged from just 4 percent of households on the West Coast to 15 percent in the South and Midwest.

The crisis makes things worse for the most-vulnerable

Despite the many regional and state variations, the Census data confirm that households with school-age children in all states continue to suffer significant challenges to the resources and conditions needed to support students in the pandemic-disrupted learning environment.

But the data also pinpoint ironies in states’ individual experiences and show how the coronavirus amplifies issues for the most-vulnerable of populations.

South Dakotan families, for example, say that their children’s education hasn’t changed as much as in other states. However, South Dakota, alongside North Dakota, has had some of the virus’s highest case rates for COVID-19 since January 2020. According to developmental psychologists, this kind of stress alone influences the socioemotional development and executive functioning skills of children.

And Mississippi has always scored near the bottom with a C- grade on the Quality Counts the Chance-for-Success Index. This year, for example, it finishes 46th in the national index, which captures a wide range of socioeconomic indicators. The pandemic has only added to those deficits. Case in point: According to the recent Census data, 2 out of 5 households in Mississippi no longer have the same degree of certainty that they can feed their children.

About This Analysis: The EdWeek Research Center analyzed data from the Oct. 28-Nov. 9, 2020 U.S. Census Bureau Household Pulse Survey. The analysis gauges the loss of employment in households with children currently in school, food insecurity for families with children, education disruptions, and other effects of the pandemic. For data regarding the availability of internet and computers for academic purposes, the Research Center compared results with an earlier survey fielded in April. More information on the Household Pulse Survey is available at: https://www.census.gov/data

A version of this article appeared in the January 20, 2021 edition of Education Week as Census Data Show Impact on Home Learning Environment

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