Research Press Release

Social science: US school closures disproportionately affect ethnic minorities and low-income households

Nature Human Behaviour

March 18, 2021

An interactive database that tracks in-person visits to more than 100,000 schools in the United States to estimate whether a school is closed and engaged in distance learning is presented in Nature Human Behaviour. The findings show that schools with more students from ethnic or racial minorities or lower-income households, and schools with below-average test marks, were more likely to have been exposed to distance learning.

Although school closures are necessary to prevent the spread of SARS-CoV-2, they have important consequences for children’s development, with previous research indicating that children are learning less through distance learning. However, little is known about the socioeconomic, geographic, and demographic characteristics of students exposed to distance learning.

Zachary Parolin and Emma Lee developed the U.S. School Closure & Distance Learning Database, which uses anonymized mobile phone data to track in-person visits to more than 100,000 US schools from kindergarten through grade 12 from January 2019 to December 2020. They then combined these data with school-level indicators to analyse the make-up of a school’s student body.

The authors found that from September to December 2020, closures were more common in schools with the following factors: lower third-grade math scores; a higher share of students from racial or ethnic minorities; and a higher share of students who had experienced homelessness, were eligible for free/reduced school lunches, or had limited English proficiency. When considering race and ethnicity, the authors found that in October 2020, 35% of white students were exposed to distance learning, compared to 52% of Black students, 60% of Hispanic students, and 65% of Asian students. The authors also found that schools recording the lowest third-grade math scores were around 15 percentage points more likely to be closed than schools with average test scores.

The authors suggest that school closures are likely to exacerbate existing inequalities within the US educational system. Their database is publically available and will be updated monthly, which could be of use to researchers examining the impact of school closures on education and socioeconomic outcomes.

The paper is available at the following link:


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