Not enough has been done to improve rural internet access during 10 months of the pandemic and prepare for more remote learning, leaving some kids disconnected as Southwestern Ontario students went back to online learning this week, some families say.
“Watching the little kids sit there, saying, ‘I can’t see my class, I can’t hear my teacher,’ it’s definitely frustrating,” said Amy VanStraaten, who lives near Rostock, outside of Stratford.
“Through this pandemic, it has become really, really clear that internet is something our kids need.”
She has two school-aged children in the Avon-Maitland District school board but said this week the subpar internet connection at her farmhouse has shut them out of their learning.
When schools switched to a virtual model last spring, VanStraaten said her kids were provided with LTE-enabled devices, tablets that can connect to cellular data.
But as of Wednesday afternoon, she hadn’t received one for this round of online learning despite requesting it from the school board.
Late last week, Education Minister Stephen Lecce announced the province had purchased 8,000 new connectivity devices ahead of the remote learning.
“That was the icing on the cake,” VanStraaten said. “What good does that do? It doesn’t matter if they’re not in the hands of kids.”
Jane Morris, a superintendent with the Avon-Maitland school board, said their LTE devices initially were prioritized for secondary students, who would be learning online for at least three weeks.
She said the board was beginning to deploy the remaining internet devices to elementary pupils in need as of Wednesday morning, adding they have enough to accommodate all families who requested them in their largely rural region.
“(Internet access) is a significant challenge for pockets across our district,” Morris said.
The school board has 200 LTE-enabled devices, procured last spring.
Devices such as laptops were available for pickup on Monday to all students.
Although elementary schools are set to reopen for in-class education Monday and secondary schools on Jan. 25, Morris said should remote learning be extended, the board might see more families needing internet devices.
“If we end up with a longer-term period of closure of the elementary schools, we would likely be in a position where we would have to pick up more devices,” she said.
Last spring, some schools created WiFi hotspots students could access from the parking lot, but Morris said that wouldn’t be feasible during Southwestern Ontario’s winter months.
The Thames Valley District school board also offers LTE-enabled devices and laptops to families which require them for remote learning.
While the LTE devices are a partial solution for some families, others who live in a internet and cellular dead zone are out of luck.
That’s the case for Thames Centre Deputy Mayor Kelly Elliott.
She said her two children, 14 and 11, haven’t been able to participate properly in online learning this week, with connectivity problems consistently bumping them from video calls or stopping worksheets from downloading.
“This week is kind of a déjà vu flashback to March when all of this started,” Elliott said.
While she acknowledged improving rural internet isn’t an overnight fix, she said the province could have done more since the pandemic started to help those in underserved remote communities.
“Nothing has really been accomplished,” Elliott said. “It’s frustrating because we’ve been saying rural internet has been an issue for decades, but here we are 10 months later and the same issues we raised back in March are the same issues we’re having again.”
Should schools remain in a virtual-only model for an extended period, Elliott said some families in connection dead zones throughout the province could be left floundering.
“Students and parents and teachers are going to be left struggling,” she said.
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Max Martin, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, London Free Press