Distance Learning: How COVID-19 Impacts Arizona Students

Jennifer Pullen, Senior Research Economist

It has been one year since the coronavirus pandemic began to impact the daily lives of school-age children across the U.S. In late-March of 2020, most states and school districts across the nation moved K-12 classes to online distance learning for the remainder of the school year. This almost overnight shift in learning is a testament to the dedication that teachers, principals, support staff, and superintendents have for the education of our children. As the new school year began in the fall of 2020, school districts elected a wide-range of learning options from distance learning to a return to daily in-person classes with COVID-19 precautions. Many districts that returned to in-person learning also provided their students the option to select virtual learning for the 2020-2021 school year.

In early March, only a small percentage of households reported that there had been no impact on how their children received education due to the coronavirus pandemic. This could be because either their school districts continued to offer in-person learning throughout the pandemic or that their children were previously educated in the household through either homeschooling or an online education program. Idaho reported the highest percentage of households not impacted at 17.5%, while Utah followed closely at 16.7% (Figure 1). Oregon reported the lowest percentage of households with children that were not impacted by the coronavirus at less than one percent. Arizona fell in the middle of western states with only 5% of households reporting no impact from the coronavirus on how school-age children received their education.

Figure 1: No Impact from the Coronavirus on How Children Received Education (February 17, 2021 - March 1, 2021)

According to the Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey between February 17th  - March 1st, 2021 76.0% of children that were distance learning were doing so online, another 21.2% were using paper materials (Figure 2). Some of these children may be using both online and using paper materials.

The Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey only provides data for select metropolitan areas. Data for Tucson is not available, but exploring the Phoenix MSA and state-level data may provide insight into what to expect in Southern Arizona.

Figure 2: Method Utilized for Classes that were Moved to Distance Learning (February 17, 2021 - March 1, 2021)

Many school-districts that were not in a state with a mandated closure of in-person learning chose a hybrid model. School districts often used guidelines from their local health departments, percent of new cases, test percent positivity rates, and local hospitalization rates to determine when and for how many days it was safe for in-person learning. Significant variation existed in the hybrid learning models with some districts returning to almost full in-person learning while others offered in-person learning only 1-2 days per week. Additionally, some districts selected to return elementary students to in-person learning, while middle and secondary students remained remote. In many cases, this allowed parents with young children to return to work. The coronavirus pandemic has been especially hard on working-mothers with young children, many of whom have had to leave the work-force to provide care for their children during school hours.

In the fall of 2020, the state of Arizona did not mandate the closure of in-person learning. Instead, school districts, in conjunction with their local health departments, determined when their district could return to in-person classes. Beginning in the late summer of 2020, Arizona school districts were required to provide “free on-site learning opportunities” for students who needed access to a computer or a supervised place to be during the day, even if the school system had opted for full-time distance learning. On March 3rd, Governor Ducey issued an executive order requiring all Arizona schools to offer in-person learning by March 15th (after Spring Break). An exception to this order was made for middle and high schools that were located in counties with “high” transmission rates of COVID-19. According to the Arizona Department of Education webpage, most schools in Pima County were in a hybrid model as of February 3rd. This means that there is a mix of virtual and in-class learning with some students in physical buildings while other students were distance learning with onsite support.  

Of the households with children that were distance learning in Arizona, 68% of them had live online contact with a teacher 4 or more days a week. That was significantly higher than the national rate of 58.6%. The rate for households with school-age children in the Phoenix Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) was even higher at 75.6%. However, as Figure 3 shows, more than 10% of children that are distance learning are having no live contact with a teacher both nationally and throughout the state of Arizona.

Figure 3: Frequency of Live Contact with Teachers for Children that are Distance Learning (February 17, 2021 - March 1, 2021)

Nearly 30% of school-age children that are distance learning are spending the same amount of time on learning activities as they did before the coronavirus pandemic. Approximately 20% of children that are distance learning in Arizona are spending much less time and just about 8.5% are spending significantly more time than before (Figure 4). The reported rates are consistent across the U.S., the state of Arizona, and the Phoenix MSA.

Figure 4: Time Spent on All Learning Activities Relative to Before the Coronavirus Pandemic (February 17, 2021 - March 1, 2021)

Access to a reliable computer and internet is vital to the success of children who are distance learning. In Arizona, 83.5% of households with children in school had a computer always available for educational purposes. Arizona’s rate was slightly higher than the national rate of 78.4% and comparable with the Phoenix MSA rate of 84.1% (Figure 5). A small percentage of Arizona’s households (1.4%) never have a computer available.

Figure 5: Computer Availability for Educational Purposes in Households with Children in School (February 17, 2021 - March 1, 2021)

As one would expect, computer availability for educational purposes increases as income increases. Households that earned less than $25,000 per year reported substantially lower rates of computer availability than did those in higher income brackets. In Arizona, during the first week of March, 53.2% of households earning less than $25,000 had a computer always available for children to use for educational purposes that increased to near 70% for those earning between $25,000 and $75,000, while households earning over $100,000 had rates around 90%. Figure 6 highlights computer availability by income for households with children in the U.S. and Arizona. Arizona’s rates followed the same general trend as the nation.

Figure 6: Computer Availability in Households with Children for Educational Purposes (Access Always Available) by Income (February 17, 2021 - March 1, 2021)

The significant variation in a child’s access to a computer for educational purposes prompted many school districts to provide computers directly to students that were distance learning. For some school districts, this was already standard practice, especially for higher grade levels, but other districts were left scrambling to provide computers to those in need. In Arizona, 52.8% of households reported that the school provided a computer to their child for distance learning. That was one of the lowest rates among all the western states, only higher than Utah which was 45.4% (Figure 7). Washington reported the highest rate at 76.6%, followed by Nevada at 69.7%. Nationally, 62.2% of schools or school districts, as reported by households in the Census Household Pulse Survey, provided a computer for distance learning.

Figure 7: Computer Provided by School or School District (February 17, 2021 - March 1, 2021)

Equally important is access to reliable internet for children that are distance learning. We know from a previous MAP article on “Southern Arizona Communities Internet Access Report” that rural households are less likely to have reliable internet access. Internet that was always available for households with children in school varied widely across the western United States in early March. Households in Washington reported the highest rate at 79.7%, while New Mexico had the lowest rate at 57.4% (Figure 8). In part, this is due to the rural nature of New Mexico, which lacks the infrastructure that the more populated coastal states have.

Figure 8: Internet Always Available in Households with Children in School (February 17, 2021 - March 1, 2021)

Hispanic or Latino households in both Arizona and nationally were less likely to have internet access that was always available for educational purposes when compared to white, non-Hispanics according to data from the Census Household Pulse Survey in early March. A recent study by the Pew Research Center also found that the “homework gap” which refers to school-age children lacking the connectivity they need to complete schoolwork at home, is more pronounced for black, Hispanic, and lower-income households.

Around the country, many schools and school districts provided internet access to lower-income households via hotspots. Nationally, over 10% of households earning less than $25,000 that have children in school have internet access that is provided by the school or school district. That rate falls to less than 2% for those households earning over $150,000. Significant variation also exists by ethnicity. In Arizona, 5.1% of households with children in school have internet that is provided by the child’s school or school district, which increased to 12.3% for Hispanic or Latino households and fell to 0.8% for white, non-Hispanic households.

Figure 9: Internet Paid for by the Children's School or School District (February 17, 2021 - March 1, 2021)

The educational and emotional needs of school-age children during the coronavirus pandemic is an important topic that needs further evaluation. The data provided in this article illustrates that the challenges facing households with children have been unevenly felt. Some of these challenges have been dependent on how severe the coronavirus outbreak was regionally and the local response by government and school districts to keep children, school staff, and the community safe. Other challenges exist because of household income levels and the availability of internet infrastructure. As the world emerges from the pandemic, it will be important to track the changes in the way we educate children and what supports are being implemented to help those children who may have been adversely impacted by distant learning. Stay tuned to the MAP as we continue to highlight education data as it becomes available.