Brief #104

Remote Learning Projected to Increase Inequality in Education Achievement

Rosalind Gottfried        

Education, Inequality, Stimulus Relief

January 2, 2021


Demographic inequities characteristic of American society continue to  grow in different sectors. In education the widespread shift to remote learning will have a dramatic impact on students,  long after the virus has been controlled and students returned to the classroom.   Young students are more likely to suffer setbacks from remote learning, especially in reading, which is a challenging subject to learn even in the classroom. It becomes even more difficult after third grade when education shifts from learning to read to reading to learn.

The first comprehensive study on the impact of remote learning was released in December and showed that disadvantaged students are significantly more at risk from remote learning as well as more likely to be learning exclusively, or primarily, remotely.  Remote learning only schools affected  36% of white students; 51% for Black students; 60% for Latino students; and 64% for Asian students.   Overall, two thirds of the students of color live in districts where remote only education is occurring.  Large cities, generally clustered in more Democratic voting states, tended to have more schools closed (opting for remote learning only) and to educate a greater proportion of at-risk students.  Rural schools, especially in less densely populated states serving a greater proportion of white students were more likely to have “mostly open” campuses.

Lower income students suffer on multiple fronts.  They are more likely to have parents facing unemployment; increased poverty rates; increased food insecurity; lack of internet access; lack of space for study; and less access to parental or tutor support.  The long term harm is difficult to assess but predicted to be extensive.  Some dire predictions of achievement drops from last spring were assessed as better than anticipated.  In one early study, reading scores did not drop and math scores dropped less than predicted, about 14%.  However, the fear is that many students at risk did not take the tests resulting in skewed outcomes.

Parental surveys indicate that low income children are ten times more likely to be lacking in attendance at remote learning than children of parents making over 100,000 dollars.  Fifteen million children have unreliable internet access. Only two thirds of students have access to broadband internet.  Two thirds to three quarters of teachers report their students are less engaged in their remote learning than when in the classroom and that levels fell further as the semester progressed.  Low income and non-white students are reportedly less likely to engage in remote learning regularly. On the plus side, some small number of students report benefits from online learning.  These re most likely “atypical learners” and “self-starters” who enjoy the lack of peer distraction and gain focus when they can manage their own time.

Research indicates that low income teens spend more time in on screen activities, an average of 8 hours and 7 minutes compared to 5 hours and 42 minutes among higher income teens.  Screen time is associated with negative outcomes in education and mental health and may indicate a significant detriment to students who depend on it for too much of the day.  In some affluent areas, such as Silicon Valley, there is a growing trend to remove screens from children and teens during school day and return to more exclusively human interactive classrooms and play based preschools.  At the same time, some publically funded initiatives are promoting online preschool in more rural states such as Utah, Wyoming, North and South Dakota, Idaho, and Montana.  Some technology companies, such as Apple and Google, actively solicit business from school districts in the hope that gaining a foothold with young children will garner lifelong brand loyalty.


There are myriad fixes to stem the repercussions of remote learning.  These would include supporting low income parents by providing paid parental leave; increase internet access; increase distribution of computers; pair students with college students and graduates for tutoring; establish learning pods and publically funded learning hubs; assure adequate food access; increase SNAP access; and develop a more defined federal program for stemming the pandemic.  The December stimulus bill makes some strides in this direction but not nearly enough.  It does include 54 billion dollars for school aid, four times more than in the March 2019 CARES program.  However, the cost of funding the system has increased because of reduced tax revenues from business losses and decreases in student enrollment.   The stimulus included seven billion for broadband internet access and school meal programs but provided no money for state and local governments to help with corona virus costs.  Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell justified this lack by stating that to aid localities would be to bailout “fiscally irresponsible states.”

Estimates suggest a 200 billion dollar loss of education funding.An estimated 6% of public school students are not attending school and private and charter schools are further siphoning money from mainstream public schools as their enrollments increase.  So far the direst consequences of these losses have been avoided due to consistent property tax revenues and reserves that states utilized.  Some states are moving to increase capital gains taxes and taxes on insurers to promote greater revenue.  Additionally, to preserve school funding some jurisdictions are using pre-pandemic student numbers to inform their budgets for the 2021-22 school year. The next year’s financial viability promises to be more in jeopardy as local and state budgets suffer from the lack of federal aid.  President elect Biden has set a goal of opening schools in his first 100 days in office but such a move would require federal relief and his ability to gain that from Congress is tenuous, at best.  Something should be done, policy wise, or the country will suffer the future costs related to under education, such as reduced income tax; unemployment; poor health outcomes; and decreased life expectancy.


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