Online schooling much harder for thousands of Calgarians living in poverty, say advocates

Thousands of Calgary families are struggling to make online learning work as they try to balance front-line jobs and budgets where choices can come down to feeding a family or having internet access.

Many families are struggling to access technology and internet connections

For thousands of families in the city, access to laptops and the internet can be out of reach. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Thousands of Calgary families are struggling to make online learning work as they try to balance front-line jobs and budgets where choices can involve feeding a family or having internet access.

While some can run to Best Buy and purchase a couple of laptops or boost internet speeds with a quick phone call, others are parking outside restaurants to piggyback Wi-Fi so their kids can stay in school, according to organizations focused on addressing poverty in Calgary.

"There's a lot of people going through the pandemic and poverty right now," said Meaghon Reid with Vibrant Communities Calgary.

Reid says at least 200,000 Calgarians are experiencing poverty. Some were in that category before COVID-19 and others have fallen into poverty during the pandemic.

"Especially mothers are really struggling, balancing work and child care, and with the new restrictions, that's really pronounced right now," she said.

Reid says women in Alberta have seen more job losses, increases to unpaid care work and greater exposure to the virus, with many working in front-line jobs as well as nursing and care work.

A new laptop just isn't a reality for many along with paying for better internet, or any internet. Many families also don't have flexibility at work to stay home all day supervising kids and helping them with school.

"One of the stories I heard early in the pandemic is a single mom with three kids who would drive every morning to sit outside the Tim Hortons because they had free Wi-Fi. It was cold, still winter, and there was this family sitting there so the kids could go to school and they were sharing one cellphone," said Reid.

Gar Gar has been helping connect kids in need with laptops to help them with school work. (Submitted by Gar Gar)

Gar Gar collects laptops to pass on to families in need on the east side of Calgary via the Youth Empowerment and Skills Centre.

He says when kids start missing online classes, they can slip through the net and fall behind at school, which is painful for families to watch happen. 

"The perception from parents is, 'I let my kinds down,'" said Gar.

"We had families reach out who have no devices and rely on libraries to print and use computers. But now they're closed, there's nowhere to go," said Gar.

Gar said devices are now a necessity rather than a luxury, along with a good internet connection.

Gar says there is a waiting list for laptops and computers.

"The need still exists for generosity," he said.

Gar says he hopes the pandemic shines a light on the issue that could lead to longer-term solutions.

"Some kids were already struggling with English as a second language and their parents don't know how to access or use a computer. Now these kids are falling behind twice. They used to have support face-to-face and now that's not there."

"Every day that a kid doesn't go online, they fall back 10 times from where they were before," he said.

Gar says a donated laptop helps the whole family and not just one child.

He says families in poverty need more advocacy now and after the pandemic is over.


Dan McGarvey


Dan McGarvey is a mobile journalist focused on filing stories remotely for CBC Calgary’s web, radio, TV and social media platforms, only using an iPhone and mobile tech. You can email story ideas and tips to Dan at: or tweet him @DanMcGarvey