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High School Survey During Initial Stage of COVID-19 Crisis Reveals True Depth of Economic, Racial, and Geographic Challenges for Students

ACT’s Center for Equity in Learning Offers Recommendations as U.S. Prepares for Somber Pandemic Milestone

IOWA CITY, Iowa—As the U.S. approaches the six-month milestone of the COVID-19 national emergency declaration, the full and devastating effects of COVID-19-induced education and economic shutdowns are coming into sharper focus.

The presidential declaration on March 13 led to unprecedented social distancing and shutdown regulations at the state and local levels. From March 26 to April 1, ACT, the nonprofit learning organization that administers the ACT test, surveyed 13,000 high school students about their online learning experiences during the pandemic.

Trying to Learn at Home but Offline

With districts closing schools, online learning was the only option for most students. However, 30 percent of respondents who relied on their cell phone for internet service reported that the service was “unpredictable” or “terrible,” nearly three times the proportion of those who had access to the internet separate from their cell phone (where 11 percent reported unpredictable or terrible service). First-generation college students, students from rural communities, and Hispanic and African American students were more likely than their counterparts to report that their internet connection was unpredictable or terrible.

Other findings include:

  • 14 percent of students reported an unpredictable or terrible internet connection;
  • 13 percent reported having access to only one device to complete schoolwork; students with only one device at home were more likely to be African American or Hispanic, in rural or urban areas, or first-generation college going students—students who are often already marginalized with limited educational resources; and
  • 19 percent reported having access only to a smartphone at home to complete school-related work.

ACT’s Center for Equity in Learning’s report, “High School Students’ Experiences in March During the Coronavirus Pandemic” proposes that device access and internet access be expanded and made reliable. Leveraging the Community Reinvestment Act can address potential equity issues by helping students who would otherwise lack access take advantage of digital learning tools. It says policymakers should explore ways to improve the delivery of online education—for example, funding professional development and support for educators to teach effectively online.

Most Harm to Those Dealing with Existing Challenges

Experts predicted that those facing the biggest economic and social barriers would be most harmed during this time, and the survey bears that out. First-generation college going students (47 percent), African American students (42 percent), and Hispanic students (44 percent) each said they or their family needed help with shelter or clothing, ways to learn school content, internet access, access to technology (computer or tablet), transportation, and resources (grocery store or doctor, childcare, healthcare, fitness and recreational activities, meals, and “other”).

The survey also found:

  • First-generation college-going 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; and
  • Four percent of students reported needing help accessing meals the week of March 26, and 18 percent of students worried that their food would run out before their family had received enough money to buy more.

The report states that policymakers should consider the whole learner, including students’ academic, social-emotional, and physical needs. Experts suggest increasing access to tutoring; supplemental nutrition; social and emotional development; and school-based mentoring, counseling, or mental health care.

“These are important findings that add to our body of knowledge about today’s high school students and the hurdles they face,” says Tina Gridiron, vice president of ACT’s Center for Equity in Learning. “We’re fortunate to be able to capture student perspectives in real time, as the COVID-19 national emergency was being declared. We urge policymakers and others to carefully review the results and our recommendations. We look forward to sharing future surveys that will continue to illuminate ACT’s desire to close gaps in equity, opportunity and achievement for populations that are facing the greatest disparities and needs.”

Students’ Experiences While Learning at Home

Researchers acknowledged that survey respondents were likely in a cohort of motivated students, as they had already registered for a college entrance exam. Therefore, it’s perhaps not surprising that a majority of students (89 percent) reported a continuance of class-related work even when their schools were closed. And, of those students, 95 percent reported receiving at least some form of instruction from at least some of their teachers.

There were still worries about the future; 37 percent of students said school closure will affect their academic preparedness “a great deal,” and another 51 percent said “somewhat.”

ACT’s Center for Equity in Learning has addressed some of these issues, relating to basic needs and the digital divide, in recent podcasts and will continue to share insights.

About ACT’s Center for Equity in Learning

ACT’s Center for Equity in Learning focuses on closing gaps in equity, opportunity, and achievement for underserved populations and working learners. Through purposeful investments, employee engagement, and thoughtful advocacy efforts, the Center supports innovative partnerships, actionable research, initiatives, campaigns, and programs to further ACT’s mission of helping people achieve education and workplace success.