Study finds disparities in demand for online learning resources between low and high-income areas

School closures have led to an increase in the search intensity for online learning resources. Not everyone is accessing online resources at the same rate, however. According to a new study, there is a disparity at the levels to which households adapted to online learning.

The study, which used high-frequency internet use data to see how parents sought out online learning resources, found that

areas of the country with higher income, better internet access and fewer rural schools saw substantially larger increases in search intensity.

In other words, students who live in rural areas, low-income areas, and areas with poor access to the Internet are having lower access to online learning resources.

What does this mean?

Low-income students already make up a disproportionate share of low-achieving students. If they cannot access online learning materials at the same rate as their well-to-do counterparts, they will fall further behind, which will widen achievement gaps.

As the study explains,

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 won’t be of much help

Governor Walz unveiled Minnesota’s reopening plan today. Under the plan, which is named Safe Learning Plan, Minnesota school districts will be allowed flexibility on reopening depending on how many cases of coronavirus they have.

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-tie 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.

COVID-19 cases in Minnesota are concentrated in the Metro area. Under the safe opening plan, school districts in the Metro will thereby likely remain closed or operate under hybrid. In fact,  as it stands now, most schools in the metro region are poised for a mixture of hybrid and distance learning.

But given what we already know about online learning and access disparities, this only means that low-income students in the metro region will be placed at a disadvantage under this plan. 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.

All in all, for low-income students, Walz’s opening plan is especially costly.