Beyond governments, American society has always depended on a wide array of civic institutions to provide critical information to constituents, hold governments accountable, and support families and workers to be healthy, educated, and productive. This section examines civic institutions–and whether they are fair, effective, and healthy. 

This second issue of Pandemic to Prosperity focuses on the ability of people to access information they need to make informed decisions during a pandemic. We examine local news and internet access to assess the ability of communities to receive critical information and remain connected in a world that is dramatically more digital than just a few months ago. Children have been especially affected by the shift to digital, so this month we introduce an indicator specifically about them.

Indicators in this section

  • Counties with no or only one newspaper in Covid hotspots
  • Children without internet access or computers by race/ethnicity

More than half of counties experiencing high rates of new cases of Covid are in news deserts, meaning a critical vehicle for trusted information during the pandemic is absent.

Counties with no or only one newspaper (often only a weekly) that also have high Covid rates

News deserts as of 2020, Covid cases as of Aug 19, 2020

Source: UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media; New York Times Covid-19 data; inspired by Brookings research
Note: Counties with ≥50 cases/100k people in the past week are classified as “high rate” of new cases for this analysis. Blank counties on the map have Covid rates below threshold.

Trusted local news sources are key to the success of such public health campaigns, holding local governments accountable, and for getting word out about Covid outbreaks attributed to contact at local bars, workplaces, group quarters, and weddings. In July, local newsroom ChicoSol published an article on the high rates of local infections of Latinos–information they acquired through a public records request with Sacramento county. That article, in turn, mobilized the Hispanic Resource Council of Northern California to address the unmet needs of the local Latinx population by distributing PPE and bilingual Covid information.2 

When the Covid rate passes 50 new cases per 100k a week, communities are on the brink of runaway infection rates if public health measures are not rapidly implemented and followed.3 More than half of counties above that pandemic threshold are also in what experts describe as “local news deserts” that have either no newspaper or only one (often a weekly or a thinly staffed daily).4 

The news desert situation is getting worse with the pandemic, with Poynter research identifying 50 closures of local newsrooms due to the Covid crisis.5 

Nearly 1 in 5 children of color lack internet and a computer or tablet and may be at risk of significant learning loss in school districts utilizing online learning during the pandemic. 

Children in households without internet and computer, 2018

Percent of children in households that lack internet access and lack a desktop, laptop, tablet or other type of computer 

Source: National Center of Education Statistics compilation of American Community Survey data

Many rural areas and tribal communities in particular were not prepared for the sudden transition to online learning due to school shut-downs last spring.1,2  For example, before Covid, students in rural areas (50%) and small towns (44%) were much less likely than suburban students (65%) to use the internet for homework on a regular basis.3 A Brookings study that quantified the impact of the spring 2020 transition to online learning on learning loss concluded that students in grades 3 through 8 would begin fall 2020 with only 70% of the learning gains in reading from the prior year.4 Looking ahead at the potential learning loss if remote learning continues through the fall of 2020, a McKinsey study  estimated that students could lose 3 to 4 months of learning if they received average online instruction and 7 to 11 months if their online instruction was lower quality. McKinsey points out that such learning loss could reduce the United States’ competitiveness relative to other countries that are able to reopen schools. By 2040, the U.S. could experience a 1 percent loss in GDP due to these learning losses.5  

Notably each of these studies assumes that students will have access to online learning of some quality. But 30% of Native American children, 24% of Pacific Islander children, 21% of Black children, 19% of Hispanic children, 7% of white children and 4% of Asian children did not have internet access and a computer or tablet that would be needed to fully participate in the online learning that might be offered. 

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