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. 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 Pittsburgh. The full report and all three briefs are available here.
Background on recruitment and demographics
Between April 14 and April 22, 2021, nine adults (eight mothers and one grandmother) participated in one of four one-hour discussion groups held virtually via Zoom. Parents were recruited through Reading Ready Pittsburgh. Each participant received a $50 gift card for her time. Prior to participating, parents and caregivers answered 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 67 percent reporting that their children were taught partially or fully online during the 2020-2021 school year. Most were currently participating in school; two had children who would be enrolled in the next academic year. Parents and caregivers were mostly (55 percent) between the ages of 30–49, with 22 percent between 25–29 and 22 percent between 50–64. Six participants identified as White, three identified as Black, and no participants identified as Hispanic/Latino. All sessions were held in English. In terms of parental education, participants had either completed a two-year associate degree (n=4), four-year college or university degree (n=3), or had some postgraduate or professional coursework (n=2).
School this year
This past school year was challenging for families for a wide variety of reasons. In one case, the challenges meant it was not possible to enroll a grandchild in kindergarten:
"Part of the issue with even registering P: We couldn't get his information. I couldn't log his information in, and they wanted me to. I don't have a scanner [but] they wanted me to scan [documents]….So then I will have to keep going to the building to drop the paperwork, and one of the things that I needed was his birth certificate. His mom doesn't have his birth certificate, so I couldn't go down to get the birth certificate because they were closed.…Because the whole society kind of shut down and [it wasn’t possible to get] the things that you always walked in to get. You couldn't walk into a pediatrician for a while. They were closed, and I couldn't get his immunization records. That's why he was going so late, because I didn't have the information that you need to enroll a kid in school, because the places that have them were closed." —Black grandmother taking care of a five-year-old (and one-, two-, and seven-year-old grandchildren)
Others mentioned challenges with asynchronous learning, a large volume of worksheets, and a lack of adequate support for children.
"At the end of last year, his school was doing five-page packets each day that were never graded. We didn't have to turn it in, so it was really kind of just busywork. Virtual paper school only. That was the only option they gave us in the beginning; there was no in-person learning. There was no real remote instruction. They use the Schoology platform, so it was essentially my children logging on to a web-based platform and me having to teach him the material." —White mother of a six-year-old (and eight-year-old sibling)
For one family, the daughter struggled wearing a mask in preschool. So the mother decided to have “mom school” instead, which she did in addition to working online.
"We decided not to send her back to preschool just because she really struggled with wearing a mask and it was a huge deal, and I didn't want her to remember going to school and that being the biggest struggle. So we just did, like, “mom school” and we did a little bit of Scholastic online. We'll do like 15 minutes here, 15 minutes there. But we did a lot of, like, you know, hiking and just playing outside and camping….We did a lot of free art and things like that." —White mother of a five-year-old (and 10- and 14-year-old siblings)
In one family the new freedom and flexibility made learning easier.
"I do think that things are a lot easier for him now, I think that we learned, like, a new freedom. Just following his lead. So if he wanted to go to the park at nine in the morning, and then you do school in the afternoon—like, we could do that. And I think that just helped encourage [him] because nothing was forced. He could kind of work at his own pace, so that was really nice." —Black mother of a three-year-old
One family mentioned the challenge of a great deal of staff turnover.
"With this pandemic there is such a turnover of staff. My first grader has had three teachers.…One was a teacher's assistant and is now his teacher. When he first started, it was a teacher and she quit at, like, week three....Then he got another teacher and she started being absent for a while and then he got this teacher's assistant." —Black grandmother taking care of a five-year-old (and one-, two-, and seven-year-old grandchildren)
In addition to challenges, parents learned a number of new things about their children and how they learn.
"I think I have a better understanding of repetition. It was like I felt like they were doing the same thing every day, but now I get that it's important to [do that]....We read to him every night, so I think now we will spend more time with books and let him pick books versus changing books every night. Learning [that] repetition is okay—that was very helpful." —Black mother of a three-year-old boy
Devices and internet access for online learning
Some families received a tablet or laptop for their child from school. In one case, a family also received furniture.
"We were actually really fortunate. Her school provided the Chromebook for her. They also gave her a desk so we were able to set up her room kinda, you know.…a little area for, like, a class area. And I just kind of set it up, so it was like a kindergarten class….I have sight words and a weather chart just to kind of give her a little bit more of a feel of when she finally does get into a classroom how the experience is going to be." —White mother of a five-year-old (and three-year-old sibling)
But even with a working computer, one challenge was keeping the kids on a schedule while also working at home with siblings around.
"It's hard because I'm working during the week, the same hours that she's in school. So that leaves my husband at home during the day with the kids. So that's been a struggle, because she has specific times she has to be on the computer." —White mother of a five-year-old (and three-year-old sibling)
Parents and caregivers expressed frustration with tablets and laptops that were not compatible with their child’s school-selected software platform.
"My kid had an iPad, but it really didn't work very well because [of] the platform that this school wanted to use. We did not have a computer at our house aside from the computer that I used for work and because I was working from home, it was not accessible to my kids during the day. I also had two children who had to use this same platform. The school was able to give us one computer to share between my two kids in the beginning, so I went out and, fortunately, was able to purchase another computer...until the school was able to provide a second one and then we did have to increase our internet speed because of all of us being home and trying to do things at the same time." —White mother of a six-year-old boy (and eight-year-old sibling)
"So we get those glitches again. I had to take his computer back yesterday….When I got down there at 1:30, no one was in the building. So I dressed all the kids and got them up. It's windy and rainy and cold and the school is downtown, so it's like 35 minutes to ride and [when] I get there nobody's there, no one's answering. It's Friday, they're, you know, they're gone. Yeah, so that's what it is like every time that he switches staff—[the teachers] come with their own set of [programs]. They [the school] have a system that is not compatible with what [the new teacher] is getting ready to do so we're starting all over again." —Black grandmother taking care of a five-year-old (and one-, two-, and seven-year-old grandchildren)
Families also faced barriers in terms of accessing internet plans through their provider or slow internet speeds.
"I didn't pay my cable bill on time, and so we didn't have the internet for about four days....And I tried to get that [deal advertised] in Pittsburgh, they have that $10 Comcast thing. But what I learned is you can't get it if you have cable on your end. So because I was [already] a cable subscriber I couldn't sign up for the $10 family Comcast deal….So I said, well, if we leave the cable off, can I subscribe? And they're like, no, sorry you're already a customer." —Black grandmother taking care of a 5-year-old boy and 3 other grandchildren, ages 1, 2, and 7
"I didn't have the fastest internet because it was just out of our budget. But it wasn't too bad because she's the only one that was on the laptop...most of the time." —Black mother of a five-year-old
"Our internet is terrible. We were given, like, an extended router but we live in this really, really old house and, like, I'm in the attic now, so it gets the best reception, but I couldn't do this in the kitchen. So, depending on what floor I'm on that's kind of where we are with the internet." —White mother of a five-year-old girl (and 10- and 14-year-old siblings)
"We'd also have a little bit of connection issues from where we live. If it's raining...chances are we can't talk to anybody. The Wi-Fi usually doesn't work, the internet goes down, so they had to pull up the screen again. So, we have had some times where she's not been able to access [school] because of that." —White mother of a five-year-old (and three-year-old sibling)
In sum, parents reported being “under-connected,” a state in which their internet connection and digital devices had been inconsistent or inadequate for their needs for some period of this past year. In an online survey prior to the discussions in Pittsburgh, parents reported the following issues they faced in the last 12 months with both the internet and devices:
A few parents and caregivers mentioned accessing some digital resources to help teach their children about COVID-19. Resources included digital media including Sesame Street Town Hall, PBS KIDS, Daniel Tiger, and information from community organizations like the Girl Scouts. One parent noted that a leader at Reading Ready Pittsburgh had provided her with a link to a PBS show to help her explain the pandemic to her children.
"The only major thing that we did was that Sesame Street Town Hall Zoom thing that they did….The older one still loves Elmo and the younger one kind of watches it, and that just kind of gives that idea of, okay, everybody's distancing, everybody's Zooming." —White mother of a six-year-old girl (and three-year-old sibling)
"PBS, in the beginning, had amazing programs, I mean it was amazing: the whole family, we all sat down because I didn't want to give them the wrong information....I wanted to have it balanced, because, you know, I wasn't as worried as some people were, but I didn't want to come across as not being concerned at all….[A leader at Reading Ready Pittsburgh] sent me a link and said this might help, and then there was a lot of stuff on there….[Also,] in the beginning Comcast had all of this educational stuff; they kind of helped me to gab with kids about [the] pandemic and things they were missing in school. I relied a lot on shows on TV." —Black grandmother taking care of a five-year-old (and one-, two-, and seven-year-old grandchildren)
"You know, Daniel Tiger [Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood] had some great stuff and we like Daniel Tiger a lot so that was kind of what we did." —White mother of a five-year-old girl (and 10- and 14-year-old siblings)
"She's in Girl Scouts actually. So they were virtual and they did, like, a whole meeting about it, so that's pretty much where she got her information from." —White mother of a six-year-old (and expecting second child)
Other parents said they did not have access to resources but wished they did.
"I kind of wish that, like, there was more at the time; no one really plans for that. I feel like my kids ended up getting it. I kept thinking about what some of you moms might remember. Do you remember The Magic School Bus? There was an episode where they got sick and they traveled through the body, but I couldn't find the episode to show them, but…that would have been perfect. Definitely more resources would have been perfect for this age, yeah." —White mother of a six-year-old girl (and eight-year-old sibling)
School next year
Looking forward to next school year, several parents were enthusiastic about their children attending in person.
"I am 1,000 percent for it. Every day, all day, would be my preference. He'll be in second grade in the fall." —White mother of a six-year-old girl (and eight-year-old sibling)
Parents shared examples of what they plan to do over the summer in preparation for next year and also some concerns they hope will be addressed to support their children’s learning.
"We'll probably do some more review over the summer, a little bit....My daughter [will likely receive] some summer work, so we may review that, but I don't really push too much learning in the summer." —White mother of a six-year-old boy (and eight-year-old sibling)
For one family, having a grandchild finally able to attend kindergarten means a whole host of benefits, including being around peers.
"We've definitely learned a lot after our first full school year during a pandemic, so he will benefit from what we've learned. What I'm looking for the most is his opportunity to be taught by an educated professional in an environment that is totally conducive to learning, that he can meet his peers in and learn from them, and that the excitement of learning that young children naturally have…will return for him. This will be the first time he gets it. Everybody else had it before so I'm hoping and praying that he will get that excitement to learn." —Black grandmother taking care of a five-year-old (and one-, two-, and seven-year-old grandchildren)
Some parents shared that they do less structured reading now than they did prior to the pandemic. In other cases, parents read more with their children. One thing that was challenging was the closure of libraries, which limited access to new books. Some parents, however, used a variety of workarounds, ranging from care packages from family members and residential Little Free Library book-sharing boxes, to the Dolly Parton organization and digital resources like Epic Books and the Libby mobile app.
"We haven't had much of a difference; we've always read a lot. We actually built a Little Library. Like two years ago, so we have a lot of books. The only difference is I'm just not going to the library, because we used to go to the library pretty much every week. Because they have a lot of activities and stuff, but it's all been virtual so we still do this stuff but, you know, just the whole experience of going there has been different. But as far as reading, we're still reading the same amount." —White mother of a six-year-old girl (and expecting second child)
"It's definitely been harder, because I do have, like, a membership to the library and the library was not open for a long time. [That] makes it challenging….The library [would] always have little kits and stuff that they would, you know, put together….But even that they weren't doing for a long time too, so we were just reading the same old books….But they have, you know, recently started putting the kits together, where you could drive up and get them. Somebody had sent me the Dolly Parton thing [Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library] and our address actually is in the area...so we get new material now from them." —White mother of a five-year-old girl (and three-year-old sibling)
"He doesn't have that same experience, like in the library [where] they would have these reading circles for certain ages on different days of the week, so we would go to all three days a week for one....They read the books and then they do a craft. But because the libraries have been closed, they've missed out on all of that." —Black grandmother taking care of a 5-year-old and 3 other grandchildren, ages 1, 2, and 7
Parents said they were tired, but to help their children get extra reading in, one parent shared her creative use of the combination of print books and digital literacy tools.
"I will use my library card and get the audio book, either through OverDrive or Libby, and then let the audio book read to him. We just kind of read what's in his room and I purposely check out [audio] books that we already have and then I just [press] play." —Black mother of a three-year-old
Libraries also used media, including Facebook Live, to continue programming for families, along with access to materials for craft projects.
"The library will do story time and a craft. They actually will put the crafts out in a container and then you can go to the library and pick one up and then you come home and it's on Facebook Live and you get to do it with the library." —White mother of a six-year-old girl (and expecting second child)
Parents accessed a wide variety of local supports, ranging from help with food, diapers, and books to mental health services. These services, several of which they mentioned learning about from Reading Ready Pittsburgh, helped out families a great deal. One parent organized a local support group for moms over Zoom.
"My husband was out of work because he was a musician so they're not working at all, and the free lunch was pretty amazing. And our school district was not like a lot of the other ones, so we would get, like, a gallon and a half of free milk every week. We got fresh fruits and fresh vegetables and that was really, really nice. We picked it up every week and we've done that the whole pandemic, and it was a very nice thing not to have to worry about." —White mother of a five-year-old girl (and 10- and 14-year-old siblings)
"We live right next door to a church that has the food bank and all these social services one day a month, so they've helped us a lot, especially [in] the beginning, with the food bank. And they provide books too and…provided the kids with winter coats and they signed them up for Christmas toy giveaways. It was really a one-stop shop, which was good for me, because you can't go places where you used to go to gather." —Black grandmother taking care of a five-year-old (and one-, two-, and seven-year-old grandchildren)
"C.C. Mellor Memorial Library is the library that we usually go to. They put up story strolls in a couple of parks,…basically like laminated stories, so we get there and then they…go along a trail, so we check those out. We did use Woodland Hills’ grab-and-go meals, where they'd put together a week of meals and passed them out. I mean, we'd have been okay without them, but it's definitely helpful, you know." —White mother of a six-year-old girl (and three-year-old sibling)
"It was mentally exhausting….I do actually have, like, a mom group that I run in the area...so I've tried to…continue doing some of the playdates and stuff for people who are more comfortable. We have actually done a lot of Zoom calls, [especially] when everything was shut down. It wasn't the same. But a lot of us moms have been able to come together and, you know, just kind of rely on each other. I'm thankful to have, like, my village there." —White mother of a five-year-old girl (and three-year-old sibling)
In some cases, services were needed but not accessible. For example, one parent who was unable to drive would have benefitted from a food delivery service. Another family was interested in participating in the Dolly Parton book program (Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library) but lived outside of the region that qualifies.
"I can't drive, so anything that they can deliver, that would have been helpful…if they could have delivered from, like, a food bank or something like that to help us out; yeah, I struggled to find something like that." —Black mother of a five-year-old girl
Parents shared the mental toll that the pandemic took and challenges they faced accessing certain services, especially for mental health.
"When the weather got colder, there was nothing to do, so I'm inside, like, mixing baby powder with water and adding food coloring, like this is snow…just doing whatever at this point to keep them occupied [and] getting along with each other, all of us, you know, being trapped in the house.…Every single day with nothing to do—it just wears you [down] and, you know, [affects your] mental health. I was able to find a therapist but it took me forever, after waiting lists. And with my son [who needs different therapies]...they haven’t been able to work on him…because the resources haven't really been available. Still to this day [I am] playing phone tag with people...and they're like, 'oh sorry, there's a wait list.' And I'm like, 'okay, add me to that.' ” —White mother of a five-year-old girl (and three-year-old sibling)
However, parents also mentioned one positive that came out of this past year: slowing down.
"We've really just focused on family, and for us, I think it was kind of a reality check to slow down a little bit…We have this backyard that…[before the pandemic] we barely were in because we were always going somewhere else, and it made us appreciate what we have here more." —White mother of a six-year-old girl (and three-year-old sibling)
Overall, Reading Ready Pittsburgh and other community partners provided valuable support to parents by helping them acquire things like diapers and books as well as making recommendations regarding educational media. Looking to the future, parents and caregivers shared their need for better access to therapy for their child or themselves as well as assistance with other support services such as food delivery.
This brief and the research gathered here would not have been possible without the support of many individuals. We are 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 organizations for recruiting parents willing to participate. Many thanks as well to both Mary Denison and Cary Meyers of Reading Ready Pittsburgh who helped us connect with these parents and caregivers. We thank Lisa Guernsey, Sabrina Detlef, Riker Pasterkiewicz, and Joe Wilkes for their editorial and publication support. This research was funded by the Grable Foundation, without whom we would not have been able to conduct research in Pittsburgh to accompany the national Learning at Home While Under-Connected project, which is also supported by the following funders: Noggin, Overdeck Family Foundation, Carnegie Corporation of New York, and the Silicon Valley Community Foundation. We thank them for their support.
 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.
 Throughout the report, children’s names are not used and we have changed initials to ensure anonymity.
 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.