Independent, objective, nonpartisan research
Report · October 2020

Who Is Losing Ground with Distance Learning in California?

Niu Gao, Julien Lafortune, and Laura Hill


The resurgence of COVID-19 over the summer and the predicted fall increase in cases means that many districts will continue some form of distance learning for months to come. To help districts refine remote instruction, we explore key issues California families experienced around distance learning this spring. Using data from the Census Household Pulse Survey, a weekly survey conducted in 2020, we document how the pandemic altered Californian households. Our findings show that distance learning has widened gaps for children of color, children in low-income families, and children of less-educated parents. More specifically, we find:

  • Internet and device access remains a formidable challenge. Twenty-nine percent of households did not always have internet available for educational purposes, and the share is much higher among low-income households (43%). Devices were not always available in 33 percent of households, and access to devices is often limited.
  • Live contact with teachers is limited. Children and teachers had an average of 3 hours of live contact by phone or internet in a typical week; low-income and African American families had less frequent contact at 2.6 and 2.4 hours.
  • Parent involvement in learning varied widely. In a typical week, parents spent 6.5 hours helping with their children’s educational activities, and 18 percent spent more than 10 hours. At the same time, the pandemic has made it more difficult for some parents to be involved, with less-educated, Asian American, and Latino families spending 6 hours or slightly less.
  • Hardships may interfere with learning. Nearly 40 percent of African American families reported not having sufficient food to eat during the spring; so did 25 percent of low-income families. Nearly a third of low-income families missed their rent or mortgage payment during the spring and nearly half did not have confidence in their ability to pay in the following month.

We offer several recommendations as state and local policymakers consider strategies to improve distance learning and mitigate learning loss. First, the state must increase its financial commitment, bulk-purchase computing and hotspot devices, subsidize connectivity for low-income families, and incentivize internet service providers to bring broadband to remote and rural areas. Second, districts should establish more-frequent live contact with students who receive less family support. Third, districts, along with the state and counties, must provide more wraparound services to students with the greatest need: when schools re-open, in-person instruction should prioritize vulnerable students, including English Learners, homeless children, and students with special education needs. Last, districts need to monitor student learning and well-being to identify at-risk students and develop intervention strategies.

Most California school districts began the 2020-21 school year in distance learning mode, and policymakers have made great efforts to improve internet and device access, online instruction, and contact with teachers. But working to address gaps identified from spring 2020 may prove challenging given the extra expense required to make campuses safe, the extra burdens families face during a recession, and potential budget cuts if the pandemic downturn persists.


Health & Safety Net K–12 Education Population