Inequality in Household Adaptation to Schooling Shocks: COVID-19 Induced Online Learning Engagement in Real Time

Authors: Andrew Backer-Hicks, Joshua Goodman, & Christine Mulhern

Project Summary

In March of 2020, COVID-19 disrupted in-person education, causing both students and staff to abruptly switch to online learning models. The shift to virtual learning caused students to become reliant on technology, which raised equity concerns for lower income students who may not have access to a computer, high-speed internet, or parents with the time and training to oversee their learning. Andrew Backer-Hicks, Joshua Goodman, and Christine Mulhern analyze the frequency of internet searches regarding school- and parent-centered instructional resources during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Key Findings

Comparing internet search data from the spring of 2020 to baseline measures from the previous five years, the researchers find that searches for instructional resources increased dramatically with the start of school closures, and that search intensity was about twice as large for areas with above-median socioeconomic status (SES) than for areas with below-median SES. In addition to the aggregate SES metric, increases in search intensity for school-centered online education materials were associated with levels of income, access to technology, school rurality, and racial composition.

Implications and Recommendations

These results lend support to the notion that school closures have the potential to widen socioeconomic achievement gaps and suggest that expanding access to technology and support for remote learning among low-SES households should be a priority in ensuring that students have equal access to learning opportunities. With online learning likely to continue to some degree during the 2020-2021 school year, future research using a similar approach could provide a moving picture of how households are responding to school closures as the year progresses.