Cover: The Digital Divide and COVID-19

The Digital Divide and COVID-19

Teachers' Perceptions of Inequities in Students' Internet Access and Participation in Remote Learning

Published Sep 24, 2020

by Laura Stelitano, Sy Doan, Ashley Woo, Melissa Kay Diliberti, Julia H. Kaufman, Daniella Henry

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Research Questions

  1. To what extent did teachers report that limited technology access was a barrier to providing instruction during school closures?
  2. How do teacher reports of their students' internet access vary by school demographic factors (e.g., school urbanicity, poverty level, and state)?
  3. How do teacher reports of their students' internet access relate to their reports of students' work completion and their ability to communicate with families?

RAND researchers investigate the relationship between teachers' reports of their students' internet access and their interaction with students and families during school closures related to the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic. These data are drawn from the American Instructional Resources Survey, which was fielded in May and June 2020 and included questions to teachers regarding their instruction during school closures as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

When teachers deliver remote instruction, their capacity to communicate with students and their families is shaped by home internet access. Researchers found that half of teachers estimated that all or nearly all of their students had access to the internet at home, and teachers in schools located in towns and rural areas, schools serving higher percentages of students of color, and high-poverty schools were significantly less likely to report that all or nearly all of their students had access to the internet at home. Researchers also found that gaps in internet access among students in higher-poverty versus lower-poverty schools—as reported by their teachers—varied greatly by state. These data suggest that existing inequities for students in rural and high-poverty schools might be exacerbated by students' limited access to the internet and communication with teachers as remote instruction continues.

Key Findings

Challenges with students' access to the internet and other technologies were intertwined with concerns about communication with students and their families

  • Teachers' responses to an open-ended question about the biggest instructional challenges during pandemic-related school closures suggest that their ability to communicate with students and their families was often constrained by students' lack of internet or appropriate technologies at home (e.g., devices).

Teachers in high-poverty schools were more likely to report that their students lacked internet access at home

  • Only 30 percent of teachers in high-poverty schools reported that all or nearly all of their students had access to the internet at home, compared with 83 percent of teachers in low-poverty schools.

State contexts might shape internet access for students whose families live in poverty

  • The percentage of teachers reporting that all or nearly all of their students had access to the internet at home varied greatly by state. The data suggest that poverty is a huge predictor of home internet access, and also that—according to teachers' reports—students in high-poverty homes were much less likely to have access to the internet in some states compared with others.

Challenges related to technology—especially internet access—appeared to shape students' engagement in learning and teachers' communication with students and families

  • Teachers were more likely to report that their students were completing assignments and that they had contact with students' families if their students had access to internet at home.


  • Policymakers should aim to bring internet access and devices to every household for the coming school year. Many district, state, and federal strategies will need to address the infrastructure and systemic issues that prevent students from accessing the internet.
  • Some states must act urgently to improve internet access for students in the highest-poverty schools. Students in high-poverty schools in these states might have larger learning losses than students in low-poverty schools, which would exacerbate existing inequities.
  • Teachers will need support and innovative ideas for navigating remote instruction without universal internet access or devices for their students—particularly those in rural, high-poverty schools. States and districts should seek innovative options to help teachers provide good instruction even when internet access is not possible.

Research conducted by

The research described in this report was conducted by RAND Education and Labor and supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, and the Overdeck Family Foundation. 

This report is part of the RAND research report series. RAND reports present research findings and objective analysis that address the challenges facing the public and private sectors. All RAND reports undergo rigorous peer review to ensure high standards for research quality and objectivity.

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