Brief The Impact of Rural and Urban School Reopening on Missouri Students
Andrew Diemer, Aaron Park
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The pandemic has heightened awareness of the gaps in education quality between the nation’s most vulnerable students and most well-off students. And the reopening decisions school districts made in the 2020–21 school year may have both short- and long-term impacts on the academic achievement of the most vulnerable students. In addition to racial and class disparities in classroom experiences, there are stark differences in how students in urban, suburban, and rural school districts experienced learning in the pandemic.

The numerous impacts of COVID-19 have resonated differently within urban and rural communities in Missouri and are apparent among the most economically disadvantaged students. Responding to the challenges low-income students in urban and rural districts face requires attention to the challenges these districts and students have faced.

Key Data

Data from the 2020–21 school year show the following:

  • In Missouri, 95 percent of urban and suburban students living in poverty were in districts that offered exclusively distance education during the first full pandemic school year, while 10 percent of rural students living in poverty learned remotely.
  • Forty-nine percent of rural schools provided food access to students living in poverty, compared with 86 percent of urban and suburban schools.
  • Eighty-three percent of urban and suburban school districts offered students living in poverty access to both electronic devices (e.g., computers and tablets) and internet hotspots, while 25 percent of rural districts offered access to both; 54 percent offered only devices.


Though the highest concentration of poverty is within the St. Louis and Kansas City regions, as much as one-third of the population lives in poverty in Missouri’s rural southeastern regions. Urban and rural school districts in Missouri approached reopening plans in the 2020–21 school year very differently, and their approaches show how important it is to analyze how low-income students’ experiences are often affected their school’s geography. 

With nearly all students in urban areas attending school virtually, and evidence suggesting that online education is less effective than traditional education, urban district students may face a wider academic achievement gap, with disproportionate impacts falling upon students who have faced historical disadvantages. Meanwhile, though most students in rural school districts attended in-person instruction, students faced issues related to food and technology access. In rural districts, where nutritional infrastructure is weakest, 70 percent did not have a plan to continue to distribute food, despite high rates of food insecurity. Additionally, rural districts struggled to provide technology to students, which made distance learning more difficult for low-income students who were immunocompromised or who had Individualized Education Programs.

The pandemic’s impacts on schooling continues to disproportionately affect students living in poverty and the districts with limited ability to support them. As the pandemic continues and schools establish learning plans, districts that serve the highest shares of students living in poverty should receive state and local support to hire staff and make plans that prioritize providing continued instruction and resources to these students. Over the next several years, students who experienced interruptions to learning or other resources will need added attention, especially those who have been historically disadvantaged. Both urban and rural students living in poverty will require additional and differentiated responses.

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Additional Resources

Research Areas Education
Tags K-12 education Racial equity in education
Policy Centers Center on Education Data and Policy
States Missouri