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The Impact of Transitioning to Distance Learning due to COVID-19 in Low-income Communities

As the number of infections and deaths due to the coronavirus continues to increase daily around the world, the main focus has been on combating the spread of the infection and “flattening the curve.” However, the devastating impacts of COVID-19 don’t lie in just the infections and deaths it has caused, but also in the detrimental effects it has created on our economy, social interactions, physical and mental well-being, and our educational system. With at least 124,000 U.S. public and private schools closed for the rest of the year, affecting more than 55 million students [2], some states have decided to transition to online or distance learning. Although the shift to online learning can have positive impacts, there are far more gripping challenges that shed light on the ongoing educational disparities in the United States. I have seen this first hand throughout the past few weeks where family and friends of mine who don't have internet access or adequate digital devices at home are unable to participate in the online learning curriculum and are therefore given printed packets of material with no teacher-based guidance. These disparities often result from the inequitable allocation of resources, and as COVID-19 requires more schools to transition to virtual learning, the students who were already the most vulnerable to lagging behind will now face even more hurdles to keep up the pace [1]. This digital learning transition is especially challenging within lower-income neighborhoods and communities of color causing an increase in the already growing achievement gap. These challenges include lack of internet access and proper resources (i.e., desktop or laptop), lack of parental involvement due to limited knowledge and language barriers, and disruptive home environments.

Photo from LA times

One of the effects of distance learning which will negatively impact low-income communities is the lack of internet access and devices that expose the digital divide in our country. As internet access and digital literacy become an essential tool for opportunities in education, digital inequality has increased. In San Francisco, about 1 in 8 residents do not have high-speed home internet service, 1 in 7 families in public schools do not own a computer connected to the Internet in their homes, and 1 in 7 residents lack basic digital literacy [11]. Low-income children who are four times less likely to have access to internet service at home than their middle and upper-income counterparts are especially vulnerable to the long-term detrimental effects of limited access to technology-based education [9].

The lack of parental involvement due to limited knowledge and/or language barriers is another effect that home-based online learning will have on low-income students especially those without teacher-based guidance. Parental involvement, both at home and school, has shown to be encouraging and positively linked to student academic achievement [7, 13, 14]. Parents who lack the resources to help their children academically may have more difficulty in assisting their child with academic success due to limited knowledge and resources. In contrast, findings have shown that parents from wealthy communities have higher education levels compared to less involved parents [7, 14]. Furthermore, parents with low levels of education may be less involved because they feel less confident about communicating due to a lack of understanding of educational jargon or negative educational experiences of their own [10]. For example, I was asked by a close friend of mine to help guide them through their child’s math work because they were unfamiliar with the concepts and didn’t understand how to teach them. They expressed their frustration about how the child was not able to complete two weeks of assignments because they were not sure how to help them complete it. This is not to say parents in wealthy communities can understand their child’s work better, but they are better equipped either financially or through other means to provide the resources needed (e.g., a tutor). As a result, some parent’s inability to effectively support their child’s learning (despite their best intentions) will worsen the achievement gap even if other disruptions do not exist.

With school closures in effect, some students are forced to be in disruptive home environments without any outlets, which can further affect their success in online learning. A positive and healthy home environment is essential for a child to grow, learn, and explore [12]. In contrast, a disruptive home environment can have detrimental effects on a child's intellectual, emotional, and social development [12]. These disruptions can be an outcome of increased crime, homelessness, housing instability, food insecurity, and drug abuse that are more likely to be found in low-income communities [6]. These are due to the inequitable distribution of resources in these communities giving rise to the fact that low-income children experience an unequal share of chaotic home environments characterized by high levels of distractions, such as overcrowding and noise, poor-quality housing, decreased structure and routine, and irregularity in daily activities [3,4,8]. For example, I was recently video chatting with a family member who I was helping with their school work and saw the chaos in the house. There were three young children running around, playing, and yelling. The TV was playing very loud in the background and another person was talking on the phone over all that noise. I could see the child was no longer focused and was visibly getting frustrated, so we ended our session early. This resulted in turning in an incomplete assignment, and worse still the child not understanding the topic of the assignment and not learning.

Overall, despite efforts from school districts across the country, many students especially those of low socioeconomic communities will be negatively impacted by the shift to distance learning due to COVID-19 state-wide school closures. Due to the lack of equitable distribution of resources in these communities, poor students are less likely to have access to computers/internet, as well as guidance in navigating online learning, especially in chaotic households. As a result, they will be subject to greater educational disparities that will limit their success and worsen their health given that educational success is a social determinant of health. Therefore, there must be proper and equitable allocation of educational resources that will ultimately improve the health and well-being of low-income families.


[1] Coronavirus Is Exposing Glaring Achievement Gap for Students | Time. (n.d.). Retrieved April 20, 2020, from

[2] Map: Coronavirus and School Closures - Education Week. (2020). Retrieved April 20, 2020, from closures.html

[3] Aikens, N. L., & Barbarin, O. (2008). Socioeconomic Differences in Reading Trajectories: The Contribution of Family, Neighborhood, and School Contexts. Journal of Educational Psychology, 100(2), 235–251.

[4] Bradley, R. H., Corwyn, R. F., McAdoo, H. P., & García Coll, C. (2001). The home environments of children in the United States Part I: Variations by age, ethnicity, and poverty status. Child Development, 72(6), 1844–1867. 8624.t01-1-00382

[5] Chen, P., Voisin, D. R., & Jacobson, K. C. (2016). Community Violence Exposure and Adolescent Delinquency: Examining a Spectrum of Promotive Factors. Youth and Society.

[6] Demographics, S. (2009). Facts at a Glance. Educational Researcher, 38(4), 300–300.

[7] Einglund, M. M., Luckner, A. E., Whaley, G. J. L., & Egeland, B. (2004). Children’s achievement in early elementary school: Longitudinal effects of parental involvement, expectations, and quality of assistance. Journal of Educational Psychology.

[8] Evans, G. W., Gonnella, C., Marcynyszyn, L. A., Gentile, L., & Salpekar, N. (2005). The role of chaos in poverty and children’s socioemotional adjustment. Psychological Science, 16(7), 560–565.

[9] Hud User. (2016). Digital Inequality and Low-Income Households. Retrieved from

[10] Lee, J. S., & Bowen, N. K. (2006). Parent involvement, cultural capital, and the achievement gap among elementary school children. American Educational Research Journal, 43(2), 193–218.

[11] Sa, T. Y. O. F. (2019). City and County of San Francisco Digital Equity Strategic Plan. Retrieved April 19, 2020, from

[12] Sandstrom, H., & Huerta, S. (2013). The Negative Effects of Instability on Child Development: A Research Synthesis. Journal of Education, 3(4), 87–90.

[13] Simons-Morton, B., & Chen, R. (2009). Peer and parent influences on school engagement among early adolescents. Youth and Society.

[14] Williams, T. T., & Sánchez, B. (2013). Identifying and Decreasing Barriers to Parent Involvement for Inner-City Parents. Youth and Society, 45(1), 54–74.


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