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Lessons learned: The pandemic and learning from home in Canada

The Survey on Employment and Skills, conducted by the Environics Institute for Survey Research in collaboration with the Diversity Institute and the Future Skills Centre, was designed to explore Canadians’ experiences with the changing nature of work, including technology-driven disruptions, increasing insecurity and shifting skills requirements.

For many students, the short-term effect of the COVID-19 pandemic, through the switch to online learning, has been to effectively “privatize” our educational infrastructure, as families have had to rely on their own resources to provide the spaces, tools and connections needed for ongoing learning. But, as this report shows, access to these resources is unequal throughout Canadian society.

Key Takeaways

1

Across Canada, in households with school-aged children, children in about three in five households were learning online at least part of the time during the autumn of 2020.

2

Although most households have internet access, many face challenges paying for their connection. One in three Canadians say that they worry a lot or some about being able to pay for a high-speed internet connection at home over the next few months; a similar proportion worry about being able to pay their cellphone bill over the next few months.

3

Among those with children at home who were learning online at least some of the time in the autumn of 2020, about three in ten said that it was likely that their children would have to use public Wi-Fi to finish their schoolwork because there was not a reliable internet connection at home; that their children would not be able to complete their schoolwork because they did not have access to a computer at home; and that their children would have to do their schoolwork on a cellphone.

Executive Summary

The COVID-19 pandemic led to the closure of schools, colleges and universities and a shift to online learning for students across the country. The Survey on Employment and Skills reveals that many households face barriers to accessing the connectivity and tools that students need to learn online. This is especially true for lower-income Canadians, for those who are racialized and for Indigenous Peoples.

Across Canada, in households with school-aged children, children in about three in five households were learning online at least part of the time during the autumn of 2020, while those in two in five households continued to attend school in person (excluding children who were being home-schooled, who were not enrolled in school or whose schooling situation was not known to the person surveyed). The proportion attending school in person was lowest in Ontario and highest in Atlantic Canada and B.C. In most households with children under the age of five or with post-secondary-aged children at home, children were also learning online, at least part of the time, in the autumn of 2020.

The impact of this situation on the ability of parents to do their own jobs effectively is mixed. Overall, about one in three parents say the fact that their child was attending school online made it harder for them to do their own job effectively, while one in four say it made it easier; a plurality (two in five), however, say it made no difference either way. Men and women are equally likely to say that having children who attended school online made it harder for them to do their own job.

Although most households have internet access, many face challenges paying for their connection. One in three Canadians say that they worry a lot or some about being able to pay for a high-speed internet connection at home over the next few months; a similar proportion worry about being able to pay their cellphone bill over the next few months. Canadians are more likely than Americans to express concerns about the affordability of their internet or cellphone connections.

Not surprisingly, the level of concern in Canada about internet and cellphone affordability is much higher among those with lower household incomes. Younger Canadians are also much more likely than their older counterparts to worry about paying for high-speed internet or cellphone bills. The same is true of immigrants compared to those born in Canada; of racialized Canadians compared to those who identify as white; and of Indigenous Peoples compared to non-Indigenous Canadians.

Students learning online may face other barriers beyond any concerns they or their parents have about the affordability of connectivity. Among those with children at home who were learning online at least some of the time in the autumn of 2020, about three in ten said that it was likely that their children would have to use public Wi-Fi to finish their schoolwork because there was not a reliable internet connection at home; that their children would not be able to complete their schoolwork because they did not have access to a computer at home; and that their children would have to do their schoolwork on a cellphone. Canadians are slightly more likely than Americans to say that their children faced these barriers when doing their schoolwork online.

As expected, among those with children at home who were learning online at least some of the time in the autumn of 2020, the likelihood that these children faced one or more of these obstacles when doing their schoolwork is higher among those with lower household incomes. Those who identify as racialized are about twice as likely as those who identify as white to say that their children faced one or more of these obstacles while doing schoolwork online. Those who identify as Indigenous are also much more likely than non-Indigenous Canadians to say that their children faced one or more of these obstacles when doing schoolwork online.

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