At least 55 million students in the United States ended the 2019-2020 school year learning at home due to the coronavirus pandemic. This “new normal” created uncertainty among high school students about their futures as many struggled with the pandemic’s compounding effects as they also worried about basic needs such as food and housing.

A newly published report by ACT’s Center for Equity in Learning, High School Students’ Experiences in March During the Coronavirus Pandemic, wanted to gather students’ experiences during the pandemic.

This brief summarizes students’ responses to survey questions that asked them to document their experiences during the pandemic. Students provided information related to the technological devices and quality of the internet they could access at home for school-related activities, learning at home and online compared to their in-school experiences, and whether their basic needs—access to food and mental health support—were being met during the pandemic.

Major Report Findings

  • 30 percent of respondents who relied on their cell phone for internet service reported that the service was “unpredictable” or “terrible,” nearly three times the proportion of those who had access to the internet separate from their cell phone (where 11 percent reported unpredictable or terrible service).
  • Large percentages of first-generation college-going students (47 percent), African American students (42 percent), and Hispanic students (44 percent) said they or their family needed help with at least one of the following: shelter or clothing; ways to learn school content; internet access; access to technology (computer or tablet); transportation; and access to resources (grocery store or doctor, childcare, healthcare, fitness and recreational activities, meals, and “other”).
  • 37 percent of students said school closures will affect their academic preparedness “a great deal,” and another 51 percent said “somewhat.”
  • First-generation college-going students and Hispanic students were more likely to report that their parents had a reduction in employment hours or lost their jobs because of the coronavirus compared to students identifying as White or those whose parents attended college.
  • Four percent of students reported needing help accessing meals the week of March 26, and 18 percent of students worried that their food would run out before their family had received enough money to buy more.

As states face the unpredictable nature of the coronavirus and the reopening of schools, the report offers explicit recommendations for policymakers and educators on the following topics:

  • Resolve inequities in access to technological devices and the internet. Policies and programs must be adopted that close the digital divide for all students. Scale up and improve online education instruction and materials. Funding professional development and support for educators to teach effectively online is a critical investment both now and in the future.
  • Consider the whole learner, including students’ academic, social-emotional, and physical needs. Increasing access to tutoring; supplemental nutrition; social and emotional development; and school-based mentoring, counseling, or mental health care will help all students, particularly those from underserved backgrounds, more effectively cope with the impact of the pandemic.
  • Address food insecurity. Many school districts innovatively ensured that students learning at home received food they would typically have received at school. The federal government has given approved states flexibility to apply Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) funds to address citizens’ food needs due to the pandemic; states that have not yet applied for this flexibility should do so.
  • Support students’ mental health needs. In a previous report, Supporting the Mental Health Well-Being of High School Students, ACT points to the expansion of telehealth care as a promising practice for improving access to mental health services. With students unable to be at school, the availability of remote mental health options became even more important.

ACT’s Center for Equity in Learning has addressed some of these issues, relating to basic needs and the digital divide, in recent podcasts and will continue to share insights.