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 Santa Clara County, CA. The full report and all three briefs are available here.
Background on recruitment and demographics
Between April 12 and April 17, 2021, we conducted three one-hour sessions with parents in Santa Clara County (including the city of San Jose) who were recruited by two nonprofit organizations that serve lower-income families with young children: Grail Family Services and FIRST 5 Santa Clara County, with guidance and support from the national early literacy nonprofit Raising A Reader. The sessions included 14 parents (11 mothers and three fathers) and were held virtually via Zoom. Each participant received a $50 gift card for their time. Two sessions were conducted in Spanish (in which eight parents participated), and one in English (with six parents). Spanish transcripts were translated to English prior to analysis; all quotations are presented in English here. Prior to participating, parents and caregivers answered screening 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 86 percent reporting that their children were taught partially or fully online during the 2020–21 school year. Parents ranged in age from 30 to 49 years old. Seven identified as White, four as Asian, and three as mixed race. Nine of the participants were of Hispanic/Latino ethnicity. In terms of parental education, parents had either completed some high school (n=1); graduated high school or obtained a GED (n=3); completed some college (n=3); or had a two-year associate degree (n=2), a four-year college or university degree (n=2), or some postgraduate or professional coursework (n=3).
School this year
This past school year has been stressful for many parents in Santa Clara County, as it has been for parents around the country. They noted that their children are having challenges paying attention or are bored in the virtual environment and are missing out on interactions with their peers. A few parents noted that it was difficult for their children to pay consistent attention to the teacher when learning remotely.
"At school he pays a lot of attention to the teachers, he follows the school rules correctly, and obviously at home, no. At home it's a little difficult for him; he doesn't pay attention to the teacher…. I had to install the internet. I have a tablet. But for me it has been a little difficult because he doesn't pay attention." —Hispanic mother of four-year-old boy speaking of her nine-year-old
Another parent shared that her niece’s teachers and many parents were not well trained in connecting to the internet for virtual learning.
"Looking at the teachers involved, they weren't well trained. It was something that came out of the blue....It was such a stress because they didn't know how to get into the virtual classroom. They had to go pick up a computer…people who have never touched a computer were stressed out." —Hispanic mother of a three-and-a-half-year-old girl (and seven-month- and two-year-old siblings)
Devices and internet access for online learning
Most parents either already had access to the internet before the pandemic or used a hotspot and device provided by their school to connect. One child care provider in the group pointed out that the young children she oversees adapted very quickly to learning online.
"The school lent us a computer and also lent us a hotspot so that we could have online classes." —Hispanic mother of a three-and-a-half-year-old girl (and 15-year-old and college-age siblings)
"These kids that are four-, four-and-a-half year-olds, I think it's fantastic and amazing that they can do it on their own. In other words, they know how to connect and follow their classes; they know what time they have their breaks. In my case, or the children that I observe, they have adapted quickly and they are learning, I tell you. I listen to the classes and yes, they are advancing at the teacher's pace." —Hispanic father and child care provider who cares for children between the ages of two and six
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.
"Because it [the internet] gets saturated if you share it, it is more difficult for them to do their homework." —Hispanic mother of a four-year-old boy (and nine-year-old sibling)
In an online survey prior to the discussion, parents reported the following issues they faced in the last 12 months with both the internet and devices:
Several parents noted that they received helpful guidance around hand washing, mask wearing, and explaining the virus to their children from television, their child’s school, and SOMOS Mayfair, a nonprofit organization focused on building community and empowering families in East San Jose.
"In my case, well, if the teachers showed my kids videos every day at school (how to wash their hands and, like, the whole virus that was going on), then I had them watch the news on TV too….I also participated in other workshops, as she said in Mayfair, and we got many pamphlets, videos, workshops about that." —Hispanic mother of a three-year-old girl (and seven-month-, six-, and 11-year-old siblings)
"I think the school was the best resource for us in our home." —Asian American father of a five-year-old girl (and seven-month-old sibling)
One parent pointed out that seeing children’s television shows that featured masked characters was helpful for normalizing mask use for her own kids.
"I think there was even a DuckTales episode recently that they were wearing masks, and you know…I think it just made it more like the norm." —White mother of a six-year-old girl (and 22-month- and 11-year-old siblings)
School next year
Parents were split over whether to send their children to school in person in the fall. Several expressed hesitation over the risk, with one parent saying she would not feel comfortable sending her daughter to school even if everyone was vaccinated against COVID-19 because there’s still a chance of infection.
“I am still personally with the idea that I'm going to wait because she's little and she does wear her face mask [but]…sometimes she takes it off. And then I think that when she's there she's going to get too close to the children. So she's little and she doesn't know. So I don't want her to go, even if everyone is vaccinated. The vaccine doesn't mean that we won't get the coronavirus or that it won't hit us. So I'd rather she still be here...So no, I'm not going to send my child to school next year.” —Hispanic mother of a three-and-a-half-year-old (and 15-year-old and college-age siblings)
Two parents noted that they had family members who had contracted COVID-19: one parent’s father had to be hospitalized due to complications, and both parents shared that their children had contracted the virus.
"I see that she is learning quite well. So, I want to leave her here in the house. Also, because she also had COVID. And that's why I don't want to send her...My dad got it really bad and he was in the hospital for over a month. Well, we always took care of ourselves because we [the parents] didn't get it, but my dad did…and it's tough… then my little girl, she still says, ‘Oh, we have to wear a mask because otherwise the coronavirus will send us to the hospital.’ I tell her ‘Yes, mija. The coronavirus sends us to the hospital.’ " —Hispanic mother of a three-and-a-half-year-old (and 15-year-old and college-age siblings)
"She got COVID while she was going to school. You know, one of the other kids had COVID and she passed [it] on to her, so that was a little bit scary." —Asian father of a five-year-old (and seven-month-old sibling)
Other parents expressed comfort at having their children return to school because they felt like the virus risk could be mitigated with proper safety protocols. One parent pointed out that COVID-19 could be around for several years, making it necessary to learn how to live with it.
"I think the COVID…is here to stay. It might be a few years until it's completely eradicated, and we just have to learn to live with it." —Asian father of a five-year-old girl (and seven-month-old sibling)
"The school…gave us a lot of information about the virus and a lot of support, so it gave us the confidence to let him go to school. We wanted to give it a try because he likes being at school more than being on video. We decided to give him a chance and he liked it and now there is almost no fear." —Hispanic father of a five-year-old (and three-, 11-, and 17-year old siblings)
"Mine still goes to preschool in person. So far, he hasn't had any problems with any COVID cases, no signs of COVID, nothing. There are only a few children who go to school. I think it's seven or eight children. And there are three teachers for those eight children. So I feel that they are not as much at risk as when there are too many children." —Hispanic mother of a four-year-old (and nine-year-old sibling)
Several parents shared that they experienced difficulties accessing books for their children since local libraries were closed due to the pandemic. Many parents said that they have been forced to either buy books or take advantage of book exchanges found around the neighborhood.
"I'd say we're reading more, but we don't have as much access to books. I'm having to buy a lot more books since the libraries are closed." —Hispanic mother of a four-year-old boy (and six- and 14-year-old siblings)
"We walk around and there are, like, small libraries. So we'll trade in books, you know, we'll pick one....I think it has helped, and then Costco is a good resource for us to buy some books." —Asian American father of a five-year-old girl (and seven-month-old sibling)
One parent noted that she experienced difficulty in acquiring books in Spanish for her child.
"It was very difficult because the libraries were closed. Well, she's in a bilingual school. So, it was hard to find books in Spanish because that's what she needed. Even the teacher had to do us the favor of lending us some books so that she could use them, because she was quite behind in reading, so she needed to read more. But here at home we only have English language books and I have a lot of books that SOMOS Mayfair gives me, but they are for three-year-olds, for younger children, and it wasn't at the level that she needed.” —Hispanic mother of a three-and-a-half-year-old (and seven-month- and two-year-old siblings)
Parents took advantage of a wide array of digital resources that allowed children to access reading materials on a device. While parents were grateful for these digital resources, several felt that the digital reading experience was not the same as reading a print book that allows for exploration by flipping through the pages, pointing out the front and back covers, and so forth.
"I feel that my niece was affected by that, because she liked to read and she liked to go through pages of the books, see the images. You can do it on the computer, yes, but...it's not the same. She didn't [have] the same interest….She didn't want to read. It was a change, and it was very big because she didn't like to read anymore." —Hispanic mother of a three-and-a-half-year-old girl (and seven-month- and two-year old siblings)
"We read, and it was a little bit different because when you flipped through the pages, it wasn't the same. It wasn't the same. But we kept going, and the application is very good because it had a lot of books to choose from, a lot of books and a lot of variety. In contrast with the typical ones, sometimes they would send us five books and we could read them two or three times a week because he liked to read, and he liked to feel the books. But with the app, just once and that was it." —Hispanic father of a five-year-old (and three-, 11-, and 17-year-old siblings)
One Spanish-speaking parent noted that having a program that reads books aloud was helpful in teaching her and her children how to pronounce certain English words.
"It hasn't been difficult because they provided me with an online encyclopedia of books. And there they tell you how long you are reading, the books you are reading, the pages you are reading, and it brings an infinite number of books. So, no, it's not like I have a pile of books here at home, but on the phone, so, more practical, because they tell them how to pronounce the words correctly, something that I honestly can't do." —Hispanic mother of four-year-old boy (and nine-year-old sibling)
Parents reported relying on a variety of local supports to help them during the pandemic. Several said they received help acquiring books, getting information about COVID-19, and navigating technological challenges from SOMOS Mayfair.
"SOMOS Mayfair, when I had a question, and they always helped me a lot… Also, some time ago the internet was, I don't know if it was saturated or I don't know how it works. But they also gave us access so that we could get internet from the library for each device….Since my child was taking classes with them online, I was also able to get a computer for her regular classes. A lot of support from them and a lot of information too." —Hispanic mother of a three-and-a-half-year-old (and seven-month- and two-year-old siblings)
A parent who recently opened an in-home child care center mentioned that FIRST 5 Santa Clara County helped with materials needed to open the program.
"FIRST 5 actually was very helpful because they started gathering the materials and I actually bought, like, a thermometer through them; they gave me diapers, they gave me wipes…it was very helpful." —White mother of a six-year-old girl (and 22-month- and 11-year-old siblings)
One parent mentioned using the Family Growth Service office of her child’s school throughout the pandemic.
"The child's school itself, that's why it says it's Family Growth Service, according to the teacher. Because it doesn't just focus on the child. It focuses on the whole family, as parents, as children, as siblings. So it has helped me a lot." —Hispanic mother of a four-year-old boy (and nine-year-old sibling)
Several parents expressed frustration at the documentation needed and the long process involved for receiving financial assistance during the pandemic.
"You have to say how much you spend on laundry, how much you spend on food, if you pay for electricity, if you pay for internet, if you pay for gas, if you pay for license plates, if you pay for insurance, for telephone—you have to give details of everything, how much you spend. And I'm telling you because I've been through that process. It is complicated. The paperwork process is complicated…you have to fill out a certain application for each member of your family and then you have to wait until you pre-qualify and then you qualify for that aid." —Hispanic mother of a four-year-old boy (and nine-year-old sibling)
This mother went on to explain other barriers:
"There are people that I've seen that have tried to seek help and they haven't been able to get help because they don't qualify, because their salary is too high, because they give them a thousand excuses. So there are certain obstacles that they sometimes put in the way of helping us." —Hispanic mother of a four-year-old boy (and nine-year-old sibling)
One parent said she was unable to access rental assistance.
"Well, it would have been great if they had been helping us with the rent. It would have been great. But no, no, no. We didn't get that." —Hispanic mother of a three-and-a-half-year-old girl (and 15-year-old and college-age siblings)
Another parent wanted to see more local programs targeted towards helping toddlers advance in their learning.
"I wish there were more programs for that age group, like more activities for three or two years old before entering kindergarten or preschool, because I feel, I really don't have a lot of time living in this country, that there aren't many activities for that age group. Just the basics, right? And in my case, I don't work, and sometimes I was looking for activities before COVID started, so I was looking for some kind of activity or something like that for their learning." —Hispanic mother of a three-year-old boy
Overall, community partners across Santa Clara County provided valuable support to parents by helping them acquire books, providing accurate information about COVID-19, and assisting parents in navigating technological challenges associated with online learning. Looking to the future, parents shared their need for more local programs targeted towards toddlers and assistance in navigating the bureaucratic processes of receiving financial assistance during the pandemic.
This brief and the research gathered here would not have been possible without Sebastián González de León, who conducted two of the 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 general 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 FIRST 5 Santa Clara and Grail Family Services for helping us connect with these parents. We thank Lisa Guernsey, Sabrina Detlef, Riker Pasterkiewicz, and Joe Wilkes for their editorial and publication support. This local research was funded by the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, without whom we would not have been able to conduct research in Santa Clara County to accompany the national Learning at Home While Under-Connected project. That project is supported by the following additional funders: Noggin, Overdeck Family Foundation, Carnegie Corporation of New York, and the Grable 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.
 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.