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Student Voice Survey Series: Compounding Effects of Coronavirus Disproportionately Affect Learning for Students from Underserved Backgrounds

Though every student is currently experiencing the impact of the coronavirus in their own way, the combination of school and extracurricular closures, health threat, social isolation, and economic downturn has certainly had some degree of negative impact on just about everyone.

It is a stressful and even traumatic time, causing a significant disruption to most students’ education this semester and potentially well into the future. What this means in practice is that students who were already behind will fall even farther behind.

COVID-19 Compounds Existing Inequalities


This is because the true impact of the coronavirus is seen via its compounding effects—the way existing inequalities are amplified and prior achievement gaps are at risk of being further entrenched.

We used our recent survey of high-school students across the country to get a sense of both the impact to their learning, as featured in last week’s blog post, as well as the context of the environments in which students are learning in this new paradigm. Here’s a sampling of what they had to say:

“It's really hard to do everything at home and one of my teachers thinks that just because we are supposed to be in school for 8 hours in a day, he thinks he needs to send me that much work since I'm just sitting at home.”

“I can't concentrate as well as in school because it's a new environment that I am learning in and some assignments are confusing since I am using technology for everything.”

“My mom and I might need to move because of how her hours got cut down and I lost my job.”

“My only struggle has been with my younger siblings at this time. They are in kindergarten and first grade so they need a teacher. My stepdad works each day and does not get home until around 4, I prefer to have my work finished by then but I usually have to teach the kids from when I wake up to around one.”

These are just a few of the challenges students across the country are facing. Below, we take a deeper look into students' reports of their obstacles to learning, which students are particularly vulnerable to these obstacles, and how these challenges may add up.

The Pre-COVID-19 Impact of Being Underserved


We know that in a normal school year, underserved students—defined by ACT as students who would be among the first generation in their families to attend college, come from low-income families, and/or self-identify their race/ethnicity as minority—are less likely to graduate high school prepared for college and career. In 2019, 50% of students meeting zero underserved criteria met three or four of the four ACT College Readiness Benchmarks, while only 9% of students meeting all three criteria did so.

But this is not a normal school year. Underserved students, who already faced many structural barriers to educational success, now see those barriers multiplied. These students may be worried about access to food and family finances, and they may need to take care of younger siblings. The more these students’ needs aren’t met, the less attention and fewer resources they are able to devote to learning—through no fault of their own.

These students have diverse needs and responsibilities according to their individual situations, and this survey touched on only a few aspects of their lives. Still, a few patterns emerged.

Students of color and first-generation students were more likely to say that they currently needed some type of help.

When asked what they or their family needed help with, including basic needs such as shelter or clothing, ways to learn school content, internet access, access to technology like a computer or tablet, transportation to resources like the grocery store or doctor, childcare, healthcare, fitness and recreational activities, meals, and “other,” just over half of first-generation (53%), African American (58%), and Hispanic (56%) students said they did not currently need help in any of these areas, while 75% of White students and 71% of students who were not first-generation said the same.

Percentage of students who said they did NOT need help with basic needs

Students of color and students whose parents did not attend college were more likely to say that they needed help learning the content their teachers were asking of them.

Percentage of students who said they needed help learning content

Students of color and first-generation students are more likely to have caregiver responsibilities at home.

Percentage of students who said they had caregiver duties at home

Students who would be among the first in their families to attend college were almost twice as likely to say that they are responsible for caring for a sibling, grandparent, or someone else while they are home than those who would not be first-generation college students. These first-generation students were also less likely to have a parent at home with them while schools are closed (88% versus 93%). Students who identify as Hispanic or African American were also more likely to say that they have caregiving responsibilities than students of other backgrounds. When students must take on additional household responsibilities, they are less able to focus on schoolwork.

First-generation college hopeful students and Hispanic students were more likely to report that their parents had a reduction in employment hours or lost their jobs because of the coronavirus compared to students identifying as White or those whose parents attended college.


Percentage of students who said their families were experiencing an employment impact


Students who would be first in their families to attend college and students of color were more likely to have a parent who experienced some type of employment impact because of the coronavirus, either a job loss or reduced hours.

Overall, 10% of students saw their own work hours reduced, while another 10% of students lost their jobs due to the coronavirus.

Stressors and the Need for Help


Some students had more than one issue to contend with. While over half (51%) of students surveyed did not have parent job loss, personal job loss, or any caregiving responsibilities at home, over a third (34%) experienced at least one of these stressors, and 15% experienced two or more. It is not surprising, then, that when students were asked about their needs, those who had these stressors were more likely to report needing help.

As mentioned previously, these student worries do not exist in a vacuum. Each added stressor compounds a student’s concerns and makes them exponentially less able to concentrate on learning. And, as the previous figures illustrate, these individual stressors fall far more heavily—though not exclusively—on students of color and students who would be among the first in their families to attend college.

What We’re Doing to Help


ACT is working to ensure all students have an equal opportunity to learn by conducting research and advocating for policy changes. We proposed policies to improve learning for all students, especially those who are currently underserved, in our K-12 Education Policy Platform. In addition, ACT’s Center for Equity in Learning was created to advance our mission of helping people achieve education and workplace success by focusing on closing gaps in equity, opportunity, and achievement.

Of course, access to healthy food plays a huge role in ensuring that students are fully prepared, both mentally and physically, to learn. Stay tuned for a future blog regarding students’ perceptions of their food security.

ACT Student Survey Series


 At least 55 million students are now learning at home after approximately 124,000 public and private schools have closed their doors due to the coronavirus.

ACT wanted to hear from students about their experiences during the pandemic. We invited 130,000 college-bound high school students who registered to take the national April or June 2020 ACT test to participate in an online survey. A total of 13,000 students participated between March 26 and April 1, resulting in a 10% response rate.

We sought to gather students’ responses related to…

  • the technological device and internet quality that they have access to at home for school-related activities.
  • how well they are learning at home and online compared to when they were in school.
  • whether their basic needs (e.g., housing, food) are being met during the pandemic.
  • their current living situation, including whether they are employed, need to care for others, or are home alone.
  • the types of health behaviors (e.g., eating healthy, exercising) they are engaged in during the pandemic.

Read More from the Series:


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ACT is a mission-driven, nonprofit organization dedicated to helping people achieve education and workplace success. Grounded in 60 years of research, ACT is a trusted leader in college and career readiness solutions. Each year, ACT serves millions of students, job seekers, schools, government agencies and employers in the US and around the world with learning resources, assessments, research and credentials designed to help them succeed from elementary school through career.

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