Digital divide disproportionately affected education for Black and Hispanic children during pandemic

New survey reveals parents' feelings about their children’s education at start of pandemic

Student at Computer

When the COVID-19 pandemic forced education online about a year ago, more than one in five families lacked internet access or digital devices for their students to learn online. And Black and Hispanic families were much more likely than white families to have no technology resources for their students, according to a new research brief from Rice University's Houston Education Research Consortium.

The "COVID-19 Pandemic in the Houston Region – Education and Schooling: Findings from the Gulf Coast Coronavirus (COVID-19) Community Impact Survey" provides a snapshot of how parents were feeling about education and schooling for their children during the early months of the pandemic, after COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic and schools had shifted to 100% remote instruction. The survey is a collaborative effort from HERC and Connective.

While only one in 10 white families reported challenges with internet and/or digital device access, about one in three Black families and one in four Hispanic families were impacted, according to Daniel Potter, associate director of HERC and the author of the brief. In addition, Spanish-speaking families were more likely to be impacted than English-speaking families.

"COVID-19 impacted everyone, that much is certain," he said. "But not everyone was impacted equally."

Also, more than half (53%) of all parents worried their children would not be ready for the 2020-21 academic year. While families of all ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds were concerned, the numbers were higher for families without electronic devices for children to use for schoolwork or accessing the internet.

The survey confirmed the presumption that family income is related to having access to the internet and digital devices. Almost half of households earning less than $20,000 a year reported not having a device or internet for children to complete schoolwork, compared to only 4% of families earning more than $100,000 per year.

However, parents and families did report receiving regular communication from their child(ren)'s schools and districts. About 90% of parents indicated they were getting information during the first six months of the pandemic.

Moving forward, Potter and co-author Courtney Thrash, a HERC researcher, suggest the following for schools and school districts:

  • Monitor the digital divide and look for ways to help students with access to internet or digital devices.
  • Research and follow the academic progress of students so interventions can happen when needed.
  • Continue communicating with parents beyond the pandemic. This may strengthen relationships between teachers and students, schools and parents, and districts and communities, the researchers wrote.

"These data provide a clear picture of how inequalities present long before COVID-19 were intensified by the pandemic," Potter said. "While steps have been taken to address the digital divide and issues related to gaps in access to technology resources, the consequences of these early days on students' learning, to say nothing of the continued impact on schooling and education more than a year later, are only starting to be known."

Adults from approximately 9,300 households with children responded to the survey between March and September 2020.

The brief is available online at https://herc.rice.edu.