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First Quarter 2023, 
Vol. 105, No. 1
Posted 2023-01-20

The Unequal Responses to Pandemic-Induced Schooling Shocks

by Andrea Flores and George-Levi Gayle


This article investigates the existence of socio-demographic gradients in the schooling shocks experienced by school-aged children and their ability to adjust to the disruptions induced by the containment measures imposed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. It focuses on documenting racial, educational, and income disparities in these two essential components of children's human capital accumulation that could have significant implications in the medium and long run. The article finds that children in households from disadvantaged socio-demographic groups (i) were significantly more likely to face severe education disruptions from school cancellations at the onset of the pandemic, (ii) had more-limited access to  remote-learning resources such as computers, and (iii) relied more heavily on schools to obtain access to these resources. Notably, these adverse effects severely disrupted children's 2019-20 academic year but were mitigated at the start of the 2020-21 academic year.

Andrea Flores is an assistant professor at EPGE Brazilian School of Economics and Finance. George-Levi Gayle is a research fellow at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis and a professor of economics at Washington University in St. Louis.


The literature has often emphasized the role of schools as social equalizers in providing students from disadvantaged families with improved access to educational resources and the ability to socialize with peers of different socio-economic backgrounds. Disparities in these aspects of children's human capital accumulation tend to have an unequal effect on children's educational outcomes in the medium and long run—primarily through differences in parents' ability to make the necessary investments to help their children adapt to alternative learning formats. In this article, we investigate the existence of socio-demographic gradients in children's learning formats and access to computers during the first two school years affected by the pandemic, which jeopardized the equalizing role of schools. We build on the data and analysis presented in a companion article (Flores and Gayle, 2022) to show that the disparate impact of COVID-19 on employment that we document in that article aligns with the socio-demographic gradients we find in children's education disruptions and access to educational resources during the pandemic.

Our analysis builds on the strand of the literature focusing on the impact of education disruptions on children's human capital, which investigates how test scores and college entrance outcomes are affected by the academic disruptions caused by natural disasters such as hurricanes. The pandemic shock mimicks the impact of a natural disaster mainly in the form of the education disruptions generated by both shocks. For instance, Sacerdote, 2012 finds an immediate one-year decline in math test scores among evacuees from New Orleans affected by Hurricane Katrina, who were from disproportionately poor and low-scoring school districts. Such an adverse short-term effect was expected since students lost around five school weeks. Furthermore, his results suggest that students reassigned to wealthier and higher-scoring schools were able to compensate for these short-term adverse effects, highlighting the equalizing role of schools.

Nonetheless, the main point of departure of the pandemic shock from a shock generated by a natural disaster is the absence of schools as an equalizer amid school closures implemented to contain the spread of the virus. In this way, as Kuhfeld et al., 2020 argue, the disparities in children's education induced by the pandemic shock are instead expected to mimic the disparities documented by seasonal learning studies, due to the underlying inequities in the access to academic resources and to a proper learning environment at home in the absence of in-person instruction. Thus, it is highly likely that there will exist substantial education lags among socio-demographic groups that could not fully compensate for the lack of in-person instruction and who might have been more likely to face financial hardships during the pandemic.

Documenting the disparities observed in children's ability to adjust to the different pandemic-related education disruptions is relevant since the disparities could translate into socio-demographic gaps in medium- and long-term education outcomes. For instance, Maldonado and De Witte, 2020 evidence on the impact of school closures in Belgium on students' scores in standardized tests indicate an overall decline in math and language scores. The authors also provide evidence of a fall in overall grade point averages (GPAs) associated with school closures, with higher losses concentrated among students from disadvantaged socio-economic groups. There are similar results documented in the Netherlands (Engzell, Frey, and Verhagen, 2021). The literature has listed two plausible drivers of these negative effects on children's education outcomes. The first one pertains to the deterioration of children's peer networks due to school closures (Grewenig et al., 2020 and Agostinelli et al., 2020). The second one pertains to limitations on children's access to educational resources—related to both parental time and monetary investments in children's education—for adapting to alternative learning formats (Andrew et al., 2020, Boca et al., 2020, and Sevilla and Smith, 2020).

Our analysis exploits the availability of detailed information on the types of education disruptions faced by school-aged children in U.S. households during the pandemic, including the cancellation of classes. Additionally, the survey also collects information on the availability of active learning resources, such as computers, and how these resources were provided. The information in the survey allows us to investigate how well-equipped children were to adjust to alternative learning formats adopted in response to the schooling shocks generated by the pandemic. The information in the survey also allows us to study to what extent schools can help overcome limitations that parents from disadvantaged socio-demographic groups have in securing access to a computer.

We find that children in households of non-White respondents were more likely to have had their classes cancelled at the onset of the pandemic. In addition, these children were also considerably less likely to have had their classes switched to a remote format, significantly disrupting the end of their 2019-20 academic year. In fact, for children in these households, we find that the switch to remote learning most likely did not occur until the start of the 2020-21 academic year. We document a similar pattern for household income (when comparing households in the two extremes of the income distribution) and respondents' education (when comparing families of respondents without a college degree and college graduates).

Our results also indicate that children in households of non-White respondents or in households of respondents without a college degree were significantly less likely to have access to a computer for educational purposes during the pandemic, especially at its onset. Furthermore, we find that a household's probability of having a computer for educational purposes significantly increases with household income. Such observed income and education gradients resemble the strong relationship in the United Kingdom between income and remote-learning resources documented by Andrew et al., 2020. More importantly, among households in which children have access to a computer, those in the aforementioned socio-demographic groups were more likely to rely on schools as the primary providers of this resource.

Overall, the socio-demographic gradients we find in education disruptions and children's access to learning resources strongly align with the disparities documented in Flores and Gayle, 2022. Specifically, the documented disparities reflect the pandemic's unequal impact relative to significant losses in earned income, the likelihood of having at least one adult household member switch to remote work in response to stay-at-home ordinances, and the incidence of food insecurity exacerbated by the pandemic. The households whose children faced relatively more severe education disruptions and who were more constrained in accessing remote-learning resources, such as computers, that are conducive to alternative learning formats were precisely the families more severely affected in terms of employment.

Read the full article.