Tracking the Impacts of E-Learning During the Time of COVID-19

Published on

A harrowing photograph recently made its rounds on the internet: two elementary aged sisters, seated on a sidewalk outside a Taco Bell in East Salinas California, hunched over their school-issued laptops, using the restaurant’s free wifi to complete their assignments.

After the photo went viral, hotspots were quickly provided by the girls’ school district, and a GoFundMe was set up. Over $130,000 was raised for the girls and their mother (Cox 2020).

However, this family’s encounter with good fortune means almost nothing  to the 15-16 million other students left without computers or internet access as school districts across the nation shut down their schools and switched on their screens (Camera 2020).

In the time of COVID-19, E-Learning has become the new normal--a compromise that contains the spread of the virus while educating students with varying degrees of effectiveness. The question now: how has e-learning impacted the quality of education in America?

To better answer this question, we will analyze e-learning from three different perspectives: students without adequate access to computers or the internet, K-12 students, and college or university students.  

Students of low income backgrounds or without adequate computer and internet access:
Unsurprisingly, the switch to online learning has had a profound negative impact on this community of students. According to research by the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE), an estimated 17% of K-12 public school students lack the technology needed for online learning. This statistic is coupled with reports from the same research that “students in the highest-poverty districts are the most likely to start the year in remote learning” (Gross, 2020). As educational opportunities are already sparse for students in this demographic, the current remote learning systems exacerbates existing disparities across the country.

Though school districts have made a concerted effort to distribute laptops and hotspots to all students, many obstacles to an effective E-Learning experience remain. For instance, The New York Times suggests that engagement within this  demographic suffers because students often lack aquiet learning environment or parental supervision. (Bazelon, 2020). These claims are bolstered by joint research conducted by Harvard and Brown University, which has tracked math engagement statistics since the onset of the pandemic. Based on their findings, levels of low income student participation in math classes fell 60% this spring, and are still down 8.4% compared to pre-quarantine levels of January 2020. Meanwhile, high income students experienced a mere 25% drop in participation this spring, but have since climbed to a 7.2% increase in engagement compared to January 2020 (Tracktherecovery, 2020).

This lack of engagement leads to several other maladies that together, culminate in a social syndrome known as Cumulative Disadvantage. Cumulative Disadvantage refers to the theory that socioeconomic inequality increases as a function of time, often beginning in childhood (Melo, 2019). According to research conducted by McKinsey and Company, decreased engagement among low income students can result in a 12.4 month loss in learning compared to traditional classroom methods. This comes as a major blow to a demographic that already suffers from an achievement gap. This, combined with chronic absenteeism, low levels of motivation, and decreased information retention in Elementary and Middle school students leads to higher dropout rates in high school and lower lifetime earnings(Dorn, 2020).

McKinsey further projects that, at the current rate, “2 to 9 percent of high-school students could drop out as a result of the coronavirus and associated school closures.” This translates to anywhere from 200,000 to 1.1 million dropouts associated with learning loss due to COVID-19, a figure that can further socioeconomic division in America (Dorn, 2020).

While remote learning seems to be the primary way to keep students and teachers safe from COVID-19, the destructive impact it has on low income communities is potentially immeasurable.

K-12 students:
Taken as a whole, the switch to online learning has revealed several alarming trends for K-12 students. According to a joint study by Brown University and the University of Virginia, “[K-12] students are likely to return in fall 2020 with approximately 63-68% of the learning gains in reading relative to a typical school year and with 37-50% of the learning gains in math.” However, the study found that online learning can increase gains in reading aptitude for the top-performing third of students. (Kuhfeld, 2020).

These findings are compounded by McKinsey projections, which analyze several possible scenarios for returning students to in person classes. Compared to typical in-person learning, remote instruction correlates with a five point deduction in standardized test scores as measured by the NWEA’s RIT. Students who receive remote instruction of below average quality risk a ten point deduction (Dorn, 2020).

This data confirms a concerning phenomenon: the achievement gap is widening as underperforming students fall further behind their higher-achieving peers during online learning.

Remote learning has only been widely used for several months, and will  likely last at most one school year. But the gaps it has widened in young students’ educations have the potential to impede high school graduation and undermine the quality of the American public education system.

College/University students:
The analysis of the impact of remote instruction on Postsecondary Education will consider two perspectives: mental health, and student success.

Perhaps one of the most overlooked aspects of remote learning during COVID-19 is the toll it has taken on students’ mental health. According to Active Minds, a nonprofit organization focused on mental health awareness, 91% of college students report higher levels of stress and anxiety due to COVID-19, while 20% indicate that their mental health has significantly worsened as a result of the virus. With causes ranging from loneliness and isolation to relocation and financial setback, the implications are enormous. As indicated by research from the CDC, 25.5% of college-age students reported suicidal thoughts as a result of COVID-19. The same proportion of students also reported increased substance use over the course of the epidemic (Shewey 2020).

The existing impacts of quarantine policies are compounded by the proven inefficacy of online learning compared to in-person courses, an effect that could greatly reduce student success in the long run. According to a 2017 Stanford University study, “taking a course online, instead of in-person, reduces student success and progress in college. Grades are lower both for the course taken online and in future courses. Students are less likely to remain enrolled at the university”. Evidently, students and institutions must be wary of this cumulative effect. As students progress through college, educational drawbacks created by COVID-19 can hinder job prospects and even limit income growth later in life (Bettinger 2017). Furthermore, as most colleges and universities have not  reduced tuition rates, accessibility to secondary education for many has all but vanished. This year, nearly 70% of parents will struggle to pay their children’s tuition, and over half of students have changed their higher education plans (Dickler, 2020).


The photograph of the two East Salinas girls reflects a bleak reality of the current state of education in America. With much of its student population confined to remote learning methods, educators and institutions must continuously find ways to monitor mental health and ensure the progress of their students. Most importantly, they must prepare for a heightened achievement gap that may define this generation of K-12 students.

Works Cited

Bazelon, Emily. "Will This Be A Lost Year For America’S Children?". 2020. Nytimes.Com.

Bettinger, Eric, et al. “Virtual Classrooms: How Online College Courses Affect Student Success”. 2017. Pubs.Aeaweb.Org.'

Camera, Lauren. “Disconnected and Disadvantaged: Schools Race to Give Students Access”.2020.

Cox. 2020. "Viral Photo Leads To Fundraising Campaign For Girls Using Taco Bell Wi-Fi For Homework ". KIRO.

Dorn, Emma. “COVID-19 and student learning in the United States: The hurt could last a lifetime” 2020. McKinsey and Company.

Gross, Bethany. "Getting Back To School: An Update On Plans From Across The Country | Center On Reinventing Public Education". 2020. Crpe.Org.

Kuhfeld, Megan, “Projecting the potential impacts of COVID-19 school closures on academic achievement” 2020. Brown University.

Kuhfeld, Megan. “The COVID-19 slide” 2020. Nwea.Org.

Melo, Sara, Joana Guedes, and Sandra Mendes. 2019. "Theory Of Cumulative Disadvantage/Advantage". Encyclopedia Of Gerontology And Population Aging, 1-8. doi:10.1007/978-3-319-69892-2_751-1.

“Percent Change in Student Participation”. 2020. Tracktherecovery.Org.

Shewey, James. "Addressing Student Mental Health During The COVID-19 Pandemic". 2020. RCM&D.

More posts by Neil Xu.
Tracking the Impacts of E-Learning During the Time of COVID-19
Twitter icon Facebook icon