Study finds disparities in demand for online learning resources between low and high income areas, which will widen achievement gaps

According to a new study, researchers found that there was a disparity at the levels to which households adapted to online learning. The study used high-frequency internet use data to see how parents sought out online learning resources as schools closed. Generally, by April, due to school closings, there was an increase in search intensity for online learning resources compared to the baseline.

The study, however, found that only “areas of the country with higher income, better internet access and fewer rural schools saw substantially larger increases in search intensity”. This points out to a big disparity in access to online learning resources between low and high-income areas/households as well as disparities between urban and rural areas. And this will likely widen achievement gaps between students.  Learning losses will be concentrated among low-income students, who already make up a huge proportion of low-achieving students.

According to the study,

Search intensity rose twice as much in areas with above median socioeconomic status (measured by household income, parental education, and computer and internet access) as in areas with below mean socioeconomic status. Search intensity for school-centered resources, for example, increased by 15 percent for each additional $10,000 in mean household income and by roughly 50 percent for each 10 percentage point increase in the fraction of households with broadband internet and a computer. Areas with more rural schools and Black students saw lower increases in search intensity. Socioeconomic gaps widened both between and within the country’s four Census regions (Northeast, Midwest, South, and West).

The Minnesota reopening plan

Governor Walz unveiled Minnesota’s reopening plan today. According to the plan, Minnesota school districts will be allowed flexibility on reopening depending on how many cases of coronavirus they have.

According to the “Safe Learning plan” provided by Governor Walz,

To fully reopen, a county would need to have fewer than 9 cases of the virus per 10,000 residents over a 14-day period. Schools in counties with higher case counts could attempt to reopen on a more limited basis for full or part-time classes, with younger students getting priority for in-person instruction. All schools in counties with more than 50 cases per 10,000 residents would have to be fully online.


In schools that do open, masks would be required — and provided by the state — for both students and teachers. As in the first months of the pandemic, schools that are not fully open would be required to provide free childcare for school-age children of critical workers. Schools will also have to accommodate any students that do not want to return to in-person classes with options for full-time distance learning.

 Low-income students will suffer disproportionately

Cases in Minnesota are concentrated in the Metro area. This means that school districts in the Metro region will face more restrictions to reopening fully than will schools in rural areas. As it stands now, most schools in the metro region are poised for a mixture of hybrid and distance learning. But we already know that online learning is an ineffective tool for education and it heavily disadvantages low-income students. Students deemed to be in areas with high cases of coronavirus will, therefore, be disadvantaged in this new program. Low-income students in those areas will be even more impacted.

There has already been evidence showing how low-income students disproportionately suffer from school closures. This is because they tend to have trouble accessing online learning materials. Additionally, they are more likely to live in areas where they face more disruptions to learning than high-income students. The new plan will exacerbate these already existing achievement gaps.