The unprecedented and fast evolving nature of the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted STEM education, negatively impacting students’ persistence and success. Social aspects of race and class predict health and education outcomes. Public health crises, like COVID-19, disproportionately impact African Americans (AAs), lower income Americans, and individuals with psychosocial risk factors. This disparate impact has been linked to poor baseline health and environmental factors that make it difficult to adhere to social distancing orders. National education-related disparities show similar patterns across sociodemographic groups. Low-income college students have unequal access to computers, electronic devices, and internet service. They also encounter, higher instances of barriers, such as family violence and hunger, and greater concerns around stress and coping. At North Carolina A&T State University (NC A&T), the nation’s largest Historically Black College and University (HBCU), over 1,700 students failed to show up for classes when COVID-19 forced transition of all classes to online instruction modes in March 2020, placing them at risk for dropping out of college or extending their time in school; an additional financial burden. Furthermore, many of the students at HBCUs work part-time while attending school, mostly in the essential services sector. This places them at greater risk for exposure to COVID-19, exacerbating their anxieties and stress levels. A multidisciplinary team of investigators from NC A&T seeks to understand the risk factors for these college students and use the information to develop effective interventions to prevent disruptions in remote learning success in preparation for fall 2020 and subsequent semesters. This is critical because resumption of classes using “normal” face-to-face formats is unlikely to happen until a drug or vaccine for COVID-19 is developed, a scenario that could take years. If the barriers to online and remote learning are not addressed, these students will literally be left behind.

This study seeks to highlight the extent to which psychosocial risk factors, including poor access to technology resources, related to the current COVID-19 pandemic and extenuating circumstances are having an impact on student learning outcomes. To better understand the correlations between psychosocial risk factors and remote learning success in times of crisis, this study will utilize a mixed-methods approach for students at NC A&T. An online survey will be administered to collect data on various metrics: sociodemographic characteristics, experience with COVID-19, attitudes and behaviors in response to COVID-19, perceived stress and coping, depression, family violence perpetration and victimization, food insecurity and self-efficacy, and familiarity with computers and technology. This will be followed by interviews with randomly selected survey respondents to contextualize quantitative findings and uncover additional barriers and promoters. Survey data will be analyzed using regression modeling, and interview data will be analyzed using content analyses. The survey and interview data will be triangulated by comparing and contrasting findings to develop a comprehensive understanding of psychosocial risk factors that impact remote learning success. The outcomes will inform development of a mobile Application (App) to engage these students and connect them to resources needed to sustain their learning in these disruptive conditions. Findings from this study will produce new knowledge regarding psychosocial determinants of successful remote learning during a critical disruption in the academic journey. As the nation’s largest HBCU and top producer of African American STEM undergraduates, NC A&T is positioned to evaluate how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted vulnerable students and develop suitable interventions for academic success. This work will inform future policy and development of prevention strategies so that institutions are better prepared for future pandemics that make remote and online learning necessary for all students. This work will produce insights that may be applied more generally to how HBCU students’ and students from similar backgrounds transition to online learning. This research will aid intervention development by identifying factors impacting student success under extreme disruptive conditions.

This award reflects NSF's statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation's intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Computer and Network Systems (CNS)
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Michelle Rogers
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North Carolina Agricultural & Technical State University
United States
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