Powerful partnerships bridge the digital divide to help students succeed - United Way Alberta Capital Region

Powerful partnerships bridge the digital divide to help students succeed

June 19, 2023

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During the COVID-19 pandemic, United Way partnered with the Edmonton Public Schools Foundation to distribute Chromebooks to keep students learning and connected, ensuring digital equity for all students


During the COVID-19 pandemic, the world went online seemingly overnight. But in an effort to protect people from the virus and slow the spread, vulnerable people without affordable or accessible technology were at risk of being further disadvantaged as institutions that were primarily in-person moved to largely serve people online. Technology access was no longer a luxury, but a basic need.

While pandemic restrictions have been lifted across the province, digital equity — easier and more affordable access to technology — remains important to maintain.

For Souyeta’s family of seven, navigating the pandemic was challenging, especially when it came to helping her four school-aged children learn from home when their classes at Lauderdale School moved online.

“There was a lot of uncertainty,” Souyeta described. “How long will schools be closed? How can I teach them? Everything went online and navigating the system was hard.”

While Souyeta had a computer, she needed it to work from home herself. But then, she heard from her children’s school that students would be able to receive Chromebooks to support the transition to online learning.

“I was speechless. I’d never seen a school that could provide Chromebooks,” she shared. “Even just having an hour, half hour of school online really changed my kids’ day.”

More than 1,000 Chromebooks have been distributed to Edmonton Public School families through a partnership with United Way of the Alberta Capital Region and Edmonton Public Schools Foundation.

During the early months of the pandemic, United Way and our supporters rallied to make sure that students who needed Chromebooks had access to technology so they could stay connected to school, and to their community. Initially, United Way connected Chromebooks into their existing All in for Youth sites, but the need for technology was high across the region.

“It wasn’t just classes moving online — we lost contact with many other positive supports and outlets that we used to rely on, leaving kids vulnerable to high stress and not knowing when their life would return to ‘normal’. It was essential that we do what we could to try and maintain connections for youth,” says Annette Malin, Portfolio Manager for Children and Youth at United Way.

“We greatly value the partners and supporters in our community who understand how critical technology is to education, and their willingness to make sure kids have what they need to learn and be successful in life.”

At the same time, Edmonton Public Schools and the Foundation were also working fast to address gaps or barriers students may have to learning online. Once the Foundation and United Way realized they had the same goal — access to technology to level the playing field for students — it was an easy decision to join forces and lean on each organization’s strength and expertise.

“United Way has been involved in Edmonton Public Schools with so many programs for decades. We are so grateful for the support, for the messaging and for the trust that United Way put in us to create a system-wide program that fits with our schools,” explains Kyla Amrhein, the Director of Edmonton Public Schools Foundation.

“As partners, we were able to bring these pieces together so we could be responsive to our schools, and those devices were able to get out right away to the kids who need them most.”

Lauderdale School has a very diverse population, and many families who attend the school are newcomers to Canada or face barriers that require additional support. Partnerships like this help level the playing field so all families have equitable access to technology that help students succeed in school and build stronger communities, online and offline.

“Technology allows success to happen. We’re also able to keep in contact with families, and keep building community,” explains Allison Barber, principal at Lauderdale School.

“These kids are so smart. These families care so much, and we want them to succeed.”

Even as in-person learning and social supports have been re-established, we still need to bridge the digital divide to ensure equal access to educational and community–building opportunities that exist online.

“We are so grateful for the school for provide these Chromebooks for families,” Souyeta says, sharing the pride she sees in her children as they are always excited to show her what they’ve learned because they have access to their own computer.

“’Mom, I learned this today at school, I want to show you!’ Now that they have their own Chromebooks, they can log in and show me their work.”

And while the Chromebook partnership between the Foundation, United Way, and local schools met an urgent need during the early days of the pandemic, the computers are still seen as a critical tool for students and their teachers.

“A key element of creating digital equity is when students have their own brand-new device. Students really take pride in their device and have a sense of ownership of it. That’s a strong and powerful opportunity to give to a young person,” Kyla shared.

“The impact of a Chromebook is more than just a piece of technology that kids do homework on. It’s a way to explore the world, learn more about themselves, and that is a gift of immeasurable value.”