School closures have forced millions of teachers, students and parents to prepare for remote instruction, often in a rushed and chaotic state. How those plans have been implemented so far—and the extent to which distance learning is in effect—depends on who you ask, or their socioeconomic status.
According to an ongoing weekly Gallup poll, 83 percent of parents of K-12 students say their child is currently partaking in an online distance learning program offered by their schools. This figure, based on a survey of 621 parents taken in early April, is up from 65 percent from the period of March 23 to 26.
During that same period, Gallup found, the percentage of parents who said their children are not receiving any instruction declined from 11 percent to 4 percent.
Megan Brenan, a research consultant and Gallup who worked on the poll, said the uptick in the reported engagement in online learning is not surprising, and she expects to see it inch higher in subsequent weeks as districts formally roll out their remote learning plans.
She speaks from some experience, as a parent in Westfield, N.J. Her child’s district had been sending home physical packets for the first couple weeks after it announced on March 13 that schools would be closed. It was only recently that Brenan started receiving digital assignments, delivered via email.
But ask the teenagers themselves, and the picture looks a little different. A separate poll of 849 13- to 17-year-olds, conducted by Common Sense Media and SurveyMonkey, found that just 58 percent say they had attended an online or virtual class since schools closed.
The breakdown of that figure reveals some noticeable gaps in responses. Eighty-two percent of private school students said they attended an online class, versus 53 percent for their peers in public schools. And those in private schools were much more likely to say they’ve used video-conferencing tools—88 percent, versus just 39 percent of public school students.
The Gallup poll also revealed some disparities associated with income. According to Brenan, 79 percent of parents in households earning $90,000 and above say their child is partaking in online distance learning from their school. But of those making less than amount, just 69 percent say the same.
Brenan cautions against drawing close comparisons between the two surveys, as the methodology and sampling approaches differ.
The Common Sense survey, conducted March 24 to April 1, also dives deeper into how other aspects of teenagers’ lives have been impacted. In-person social activities and public gatherings have declined, perhaps to no surprise, given the stay-at-home orders issued across many states. About 42 percent of all teens say they feel more lonely than usual, with girls more likely than boys to say so.
It also offers some insights into how certain subgroups are feeling. For instance, nearly 90 percent of Hispanic and Latino teenagers are concerned about the financial impact on their family’s well being. They, and their black peers, are also “significantly more likely” than white students to be worried about keeping up with schoolwork.
As both surveys were conducted online, they do not fully represent the experiences of families across the country. As of 2017, about 14 percent of U.S. households with school-aged children lack access to the internet.
That “access gap” has raised concerns about whether online, remote instruction will widen the gulf between families based on whether they have an internet connection—worries that are reflected in both polls.