Learning from Parents in Detroit, MI

Part of a National Study on Learning at Home While Under-Connected
June 24, 2021

In April 2021, researchers in partnership with New America facilitated and recorded one-hour discussion groups with lower-income parents in three communities: Detroit, Pittsburgh, and Santa Clara County, CA. The focus was on parents and caregivers with young children, ages three to six, in households with incomes below $75,000 a year.[1] Discussion-group questions were designed to align with questions in a national probability-based telephone survey conducted in March and April 2021, Learning at Home While Under-Connected. These discussions enabled us to gather more in-depth and contextual information on what lower-income families have endured during the COVID-19 pandemic, what they need in terms of internet and device access, what they learned about their children’s learning while working with them at home over the year, what they want for their children in the coming school year, and more. This brief is a report of the responses from parents in Detroit. The full report and all three briefs are available here.

Background on recruitment and demographics

Between April 13 and April 15, 2021, a Spanish-speaking facilitator conducted two one-hour sessions with parents in Detroit who take part in services offered by Brilliant Detroit, a nonprofit for lower-income families with young children. Brilliant Detroit recruited the participants. The sessions included 11 parents, all mothers, and were held virtually via Zoom. Each participant received a $50 gift card for her time. Prior to participating, parents and caregivers answered a few questions through Survey Monkey to confirm eligibility. All participants had at least one child between the ages of three and six who was currently enrolled or would be enrolled in school next year, with 73 percent reporting that their children were taught partially or fully online during the current school year). Participants were mostly (90 percent) between the ages of 30–49, with 10 percent between 18–24 years old. All 11 parents identified as Hispanic/Latino and both sessions were held in their primary language, Spanish. Nine parents identified as White, one as Black, and one as mixed race. In terms of parental education, participants had either completed some high school (n=5) or graduated high school/obtained a GED (n=6).

School this year

This past school year has been difficult and stressful for parents in Detroit, as it has been for parents around the country. They have noticed that their children are having trouble paying attention or are bored in the virtual environment and are missing out on interactions with their peers. Parents are concerned about their children’s social and emotional well-being. They also find it hard to divide their time between multiple children and find it difficult to adapt when their teacher changes the schedule. One parent, who has a child in a mix of virtual and in-person learning, feels like her child is concentrating more in person but struggles because of the need to keep his distance from friends when at school.[2]

"L has been virtual and at school. I prefer that he goes in person, since the school is taking precautions. At home he is very restless and does not do his work, turns off the computer, goes to sleep or just gets up to do other things. As for learning, I don't know if he is the same at school, but the teacher takes it slowly and does not give as much information when they are online. I have noticed that he does not pay attention, he gets up, goes to look for his little brother and so on. I feel like in school he concentrates more. The teachers have told me that he struggles in the social part because he gets up from his table to go with other children and he suffers a lot because he has to maintain social distancing." —Hispanic mother of a six-year-old (and two-, 11-, and 12-year-old siblings)

One mother mentioned that her son did better in kindergarten virtually versus in person because he had more attention from her. But many felt the opposite, that their children are learning worse at home.

"I have my two children in therapy and the classes online are not the same because, even though they are having classes for children with special needs, A gets bored....I feel that A needs more social interaction." —Hispanic mother of a four-year old girl (and two-year-old sibling)

A common theme reported by parents with children who are in virtual schooling is social and emotional concerns ranging from depression to difficulty concentrating to missing their peers.

"They miss contact with other children their age. At first, my girl was depressed.[3] The first months were the most difficult; with the computer, they did not concentrate. They are asking me all the time to take them in person to their classroom. They want to go back to school again." —Hispanic mother of a three-year-old boy (and six- and seven-year-old siblings)

The same parent also noted that, in the online format, her children’s interest was declining.

"I think that children have a lack of interest and they don’t learn the same. They get bored and already want to go back to school. Now they find it difficult to do homework and they do not have the same motivation to learn."

However, other parents have found this situation beneficial, as they can do more to help oversee and support their children’s learning.

"It has been good for me, because they study in the dining room and I can look at what my daughter is behind [in] and I can help her. I do like it, because I feel that I am more involved." —Hispanic mother of a six-year-old (and four-year-old sibling)

In addition to challenges, parents also learned more about how teachers interact with their children. Parents were able to learn from teachers’ modeling of certain behaviors and engaging in different activities with their children. Observing what teachers did this year, which is not typically possible when kids are in classrooms and parents are at work, ultimately broadened what parents think of as activities that qualify as learning.

"I have learned the patience that teachers have. At R’s school, they use songs to help the children learn, and it was something that I did not do before. I have observed how children have to learn and the process of their learning. But it has been difficult for me and sometimes it is frustrating, because when teachers ask students for a question my son isn’t fast to turn the microphone on to answer and another child comes and answers first." —Hispanic mother of a six-year-old (and two-, 11-, and 12-year-old siblings)
"I have learned that teachers are very patient and tactful when they talk to children. I still think that this year they were very behind." —Hispanic mother of a three-year-old boy (and six- and seven-year-old siblings)

Devices and internet access for online learning

All parents expressed challenges with devices, which created stress in the family. For some, accessing devices was a problem. Others struggled to operate the devices, which meant contacting the teacher or going to the school, sometimes multiple times, to trade in devices because the computer did not turn on properly or crashed, the camera did not work, or the mouse did not work.

"My children were loaned used computers and we have struggled to get the internet. I have had to take the computer to school, because the camera and the mouse were not working. It is very stressful for the parents, because it is not the same communication that the teachers have towards them, and they do not pay attention." —Hispanic mother of a three-year-old boy (and six- and seven-year-old siblings)
"D was supposedly given a computer but I couldn't go to pick it up. I have been doing it with the tablets but I have struggled because the other children can touch the screen and D can’t. Sometimes the tablet doesn’t let me in and then I have to use my phone and I have to be juggling so I can connect my daughter to classes. It has been very difficult. And then they won't let you in and the system goes down and the teacher is calling you. Sometimes it is very difficult to coordinate all the appointments that D has on a schedule." —Hispanic mother of a four-year old (and two-year-old sibling)

While a majority of parents indicated that they had broadband access, they also reported being “under-connected,” in that their internet connection and digital devices had been inconsistent or inadequate for their needs for some period of this past year.[4]

"I am having problems with the internet and I get frustrated because I spend all the time connecting my children when they disconnect and I end up feeling desperate."
—Hispanic mother of a six-year-old girl (and four-year-old sibling)

In an online survey that all recruited parents took prior to the discussions, parents reported the following issues they faced in the last 12 months with both the internet and devices:

COVID-19 resources

Some parents shared some creative uses of media (e.g., YouTube and TikTok) to teach their children about COVID-19 and habits like handwashing.

"I explained [handwashing] to my children with a video of Tik Tok using soap, water, and pepper." —Hispanic mother of a four-year-old girl (and two-year-old sibling)

Others indicated that they were not given information.

"They did not give us information and we were transmitted a lot of panic, but they did not give us information; nobody explained to the children how to take care of themselves, we were not given that information." —Hispanic mother of a six-year-old girl (and 10-, 11-, 12-, 15-, and 18-year-old siblings)

Apart from media resources, parents described ways in which they explained the situation to their children and how their children were able to articulate the problem and demonstrate their understanding of how to keep safe.

"I speak very clearly to my children. My son told me: 'This would not have reached this level if the adults had taken care of themselves and used the mask.' " —Hispanic mother of a three-year-old (and six- and seven-year-old siblings)

School next year

Despite the challenges that come with online schooling, four parents are unsure whether they want to send their children to school in person because of the health risks outweighing potential learning loss.

"I've been thinking about it and I'm not going to send my children to school. I don't know where other children's parents are. My daughters are not going to die for lack of knowledge, but with this disease." —Hispanic mother of a six-year-old (and four-year-old sibling)
"I do not know; I would like to extend online as much as possible. As long as there is no certainty, my anxiety is through the roof. It also makes me a little nervous, because the teacher thinks that S is going to be put in normal classes and I am afraid because she still does not go to the bathroom. Academically, she is doing well but in her development she is going further back and that is having me kind of anguished." —Hispanic mother of a four-year-old (and two-year-old sibling)

Many parents were also imagining the difficulty associated with the transition, including the transition between preschool to kindergarten and the fact that children may not be prepared. They mentioned that even routine changes are hard for them.

"I have to prepare myself mentally with J because every time her routines change it is a problem." —Hispanic mother of a four-year-old (and two-year-old sibling)

Regardless of where school takes place, parents planned to advance their kids to the next grade level in the fall, rather than repeating a grade. They mentioned that it is almost as if this year does not count. They also recognized how challenging this year has been for teachers.

"My son is going to pass the grade because I see that he is good with his knowledge. This year it is as if it does not count, because all the children are going to be at the same level. I hope that in September they will go in person. There they will have the teachers in person who can explain to them when they do not understand something and will be able to share with their classmates. For me, it is very tiring to have my four children studying from home." —Hispanic mother of a six-year-old (and two-, 11-, and 12-year-old siblings)
"It is difficult, because they learn as situations go by and sometimes we demand a lot from the teachers and they are just like us and they do as much as they can in the situation that is occurring." —Hispanic mother of a three-year-old boy (and six- and seven-year-old siblings)


Four parents mentioned gains their child has made in reading thanks to their teachers, Brilliant Detroit tutorials and support, and their own reading because they have been more focused on their child.

"My daughter has come a long way and I am learning with her. Brilliant Detroit has helped me a lot with reading." —Hispanic mother of a six-year-old (and four-year-old sibling)
"My daughter already recognizes the words. The only thing she struggled with is phonetics, because it is not the same in Spanish and English. For me it has been better because I have been focusing only on her." —Hispanic mother of a four-year-old (and two-year-old sibling)

However, one parent mentioned her daughter is reading less after learning a new approach from her teacher.

"In my case, reading is no longer the same for my daughter, because the teacher taught her "strategies" to not spend work reading and now my daughter does not want to read for laziness and only uses the "strategies" that the teacher taught her. It did affect her a lot." —Hispanic mother of a six-year-old (and 10-, 11-, 12-, 15-, and 18-year-old siblings)

Local supports

Local supports were widely used by the parents we talked to. Six parents specifically mentioned valuable resources from Brilliant Detroit. They included BookNook tutoring, financial assistance, assistance with technology, child evaluations, and parenting classes. Two parents mentioned La Casa Guadalupana programs. One parent mentioned Congress of Communities (often colloquially described as “Comunidades”) and one parent mentioned Southwest Solutions, which had a mental health program that gave kids resources. One parent mentioned her kids' teacher being a support. While several parents mentioned receiving support with technology, one said she needed additional help related to using the technology and also the programs at her child’s school.

"I have turned to Brilliant Detroit, especially the tutoring from BookNook and other organizations that supported us with food and diapers. In my case, I think we needed more support with technology and some courses about how to use the school’s programs. I needed more help with the use of electronics and school’s programs." —Hispanic mother of a six-year-old boy (and two-, 11-, and 12-year-old siblings)
"For me it was Brilliant Detroit and Southwest Solutions that had a program called “Kid's Mental Health” where they give materials for the kids. S’s teacher also helped me a lot." —Hispanic mother of a four-year-old girl (and two-year-old sibling)
"In my case, Brilliant Detroit has helped me a lot. They have helped me financially, through evaluations for my children, classes that help me a lot to know how to treat my children. Besides that, I don’t get bored because I’m sharing with other people." —Hispanic mother of a three-year-old boy (and 11-month-old sibling)

Other topics

Mental health, social and emotional impact, trauma, and stress were universally mentioned by parents in the context of the past year. Two parents shared that they did get COVID-19 and that it was challenging. Parents mentioned how Brilliant Detroit helped them.

"It was still a difficult year, but I have learned a lot about things such as the way my children learn, and now I can be more attentive, more united, and more creative. Now I spend more time with my children, although the hardest part is that the children get bored." —Hispanic mother of a five-year-old boy (and seven- and nine-year-old siblings)
"We have also noticed a lot of tension in them. I had the virus, and it was a very difficult, ugly, and sad stage. You think a lot of nonsense and that is a constant stress. Children take the energy that parents bring." —Hispanic mother of a three-year-old boy (and six- and seven-year-old siblings)
"Remotely, she has done very well, and the difficult thing has been the socialization part because she says that she no longer has friends. She also thinks that when she goes back to school she will see her friends next school year, but she will start in a new school so I don't know how she is going to react when she realizes that will be around different children." —Hispanic mother of a six-year-old (and nine-, 13-, and 17-year-old siblings)
"In my house this year…of ups and downs, Brilliant Detroit has helped me to get up, settle down, and has helped me so much with my children." —Hispanic mother of a three-year-old boy (and 11-month-old sibling)

Overall, Brilliant Detroit and other community partners provided valuable support to parents including access to food and diapers as well as providing tutoring and mental health services. Looking to the future, parents shared their need for more assistance with the use of electronics and school’s programs during the pandemic.


This brief and the research gathered here would not have been possible without Coral Arrua of Brilliant Detroit, who conducted these two sessions in Spanish and helped to translate the transcripts. We are also grateful to Vikki Katz of Rutgers University for her guidance in developing questions for the discussion groups and editorial support, and to Michelle Sioson Hyman of Raising A Reader for connecting us with Brilliant Detroit, which in addition to the translation and facilitation noted above, also provided funding to analyze the data and complete this community report. We thank Lisa Guernsey, Sabrina Detlef, Riker Pasterkiewicz, and Joe Wilkes for their editorial and publication support. This report accompanies the national Learning at Home While Under-Connected project, which is supported by the following funders: Noggin, Overdeck Family Foundation, Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Grable Foundation, and the Silicon Valley Community Foundation. We thank them for their support.


[1] This income level was chosen because it is close to the national median. According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, in Notice PDR-2020-1, issued April 1, 2020, “Estimated Median Family Incomes for Fiscal Year 2020,” the median national income for families with children under age 18 in the U.S. in 2020 was $78,500. Because the national survey captured family income in $5,000 increments, families were included in both the survey and these discussion groups if their annual income was below $75,000/year.

[2] Throughout the report, children’s names are not used and we have changed initials to ensure anonymity.

[3] It is unclear from the transcript which of the two daughters the mother is referring to.

[4] For information on under-connectedness nationally, see key finding #2 in the national report. It found that even among families who have computers and broadband internet access at home, a majority are under-connected.