Resources are important to both (1) effectively shifting instruction to new modes of delivery and (2) redressing learning losses caused by COVID-19 schooling disruptions. First, the “digital divide” due to differential access to technology by family socioeconomic status contributes to unequal access to new teaching and learning approaches. Secondly, schools rely on resources to fund current programs as well as any emergency solutions to helping students navigate these challenging times and make up lost ground on skill development and learning.
Widening Digital Divide
The widespread shift to remote learning, documented in a previous post, has placed a lot of importance on in-home access to technological resources to facilitate and support virtual participation in schooling. While the digital divide has long existed, it suddenly became critically important in deploying resources equitably and understanding student progress during COVID-19. Many school-aged children are in households without access to the internet or devices necessary to keep up with remote classes. In 2018, for instance, Pew Research Center analysis using the American Community Survey found that 15% of households with school-aged children did not have broadband access. Lack of access was more common for Black and Hispanic children and for those living in low-income households. A 2019 report by Boston Consulting Group and Common Sense Media stated that 15 million public school students did not have either internet access or an adequate device for learning at home.
Aware of the digital divide, many school districts responded to the COVID-19 crisis by ordering technology for their students, but as New York Times coverage of this response indicates, doing so presented its own challenges. The sharp increase in demand for affordable laptops for children, combined with interruptions to international supply chains due to COVID-19, translated into long delays for producing and delivering needed technology to districts. Expected summer deliveries have extended to October and November for some districts, many of whom were already facing resource constraints. Amidst the delays, some have opted for sending paper assignments to students’ homes, but many consider it an inadequate substitute. Without being able to access their online classes and materials, children on one end of the digital divide are at risk of further disadvantage as they fall behind on their remote learning.
Spending Cuts and Student Outcomes
As states and school districts face budget shortfalls as a result of the pandemic, research on the effects of the Great Recession may shed light on how these funding contractions may affect students. Forthcoming research in the American Economic Journal: Economic Policy finds that reductions in school spending after 2008 led to declines in student performance, in the forms of lower test scores and lower college-going rates. The paper uses variation in the bite of the recessionary budget shock across states to isolate the effects of those spending cuts, and also documents that the reductions exacerbated test-score gaps by income and race. Notably, a recent working paper suggests that the pattern of findings is more nuanced and does not hold up to several empirical checks on the research design. While the papers are in tension on the ultimate conclusion about the effects of Great Recession-induced spending contractions on student outcomes, they—and a broader literature on the effects of school spending—suggest that states and districts should be attentive to the potential fallout for student achievement and progress from COVID-related budget cuts.
The Role of Federal Aid
As schools shifted to remote instruction during the COVID-19 pandemic, logistical challenges for learning turned into fiscal challenges. For many schools and districts, increased expenses were accompanied by a diminished revenue base, resulting in strained state and local budgets. This daunting challenge for state officials and local administrators continues as schools navigate the 2020–21 academic year. A working paper released this July summarizes these budgetary challenges for districts nationwide, reviews past and current proposals for funding aid to schools, and simulates the impact of such aid for schools with a focus on the impact for low-income schools and students. The authors assert that federal aid would be most appropriate for easing budgetary strains, a conclusion largely informed by the fact that state and local entities cannot easily borrow to cover funding shortfalls. Federal funding has greater flexibility in this regard and avoids the forced tradeoffs for state and local officials who must balance annual budgets. The authors recommend allocating funds directly to states using child poverty counts, instead of through the existing Title I framework, which restricts district flexibility in spending.