School boards warn internet outages affecting online learning in Ontario

·3 min read

Several Ontario school boards urged students and staff to be patient Tuesday as internet outages affected online classes on the second day of the winter term.

Public and Catholic boards in multiple regions -- including Kingston, the Windsor area, Halton Region, the Ottawa area and North Bay -- all issued notices on social media flagging potential problems with remote schooling as a result of outages.

"We understand there are large internet outages within our communities from various providers. This may impact student and staff ability to access remote learning platforms," the Upper Canada District School Board, which encompasses 79 schools in the Ottawa area, said in a tweet.

"Please be patient while providers work to resolve these issues."

The outages came as students across the province logged on for online-only classes this week as part of the Ontario government's efforts to curb the spread COVID-19.

At least one internet provider, Cogeco, reported it had restored service to its clients by early Tuesday afternoon, and some schools indicated they were back to normal operations.

Earlier Tuesday, some of the affected school boards said they couldn't gauge how many people were unable to log on since the problem was with the internet providers.

But they said schoolwork could carry on in some cases, even without an internet connection.

"In some instances, teachers may have provided work to students that they can complete without requiring internet access," Karen Smith, spokeswoman for the Limestone District School Board in Kingston, said in an email.

April Scott-Clarke, spokeswoman for the Upper Canada District School Board, said staff who lost internet service were also allowed to go work in their school, provided they cleared COVID-19 screening and followed health guidelines.

About 20 per cent of the board's students have chosen to work asynchronously and already have materials they can work on at a time of their choosing, she said.

Meanwhile, some teachers hit by the outages took creative steps to stay connected with their students.

An elementary school in Essex County said on Twitter that one of its teachers taught junior and senior kindergarten students through a videoconference set up in her car on Tuesday morning, using the Wi-Fi from a Tim Hortons.

The shift to remote-only learning is part of a provincial lockdown that began on Boxing Day and is to last until Jan. 9 in northern Ontario and Jan. 23 in southern Ontario.

Students in northern Ontario and elementary students in southern Ontario are to resume in-person classes next week, while high schoolers in southern Ontario will continue online learning until Jan. 25.

Some school boards have taken steps during the pandemic to help ensure students who may not have access to technology at home are able to take part in remote learning. In some cases, boards have provided devices or access to the internet.

But it's not just a matter of accessing technology -- what's key is having the capacity and support necessary to use the technology effectively, said Annie Kidder, executive director of the advocacy group People for Education.

"Yes, it makes a difference if the internet goes down or if you don't have a laptop, but really where concerns have been raised in Ontario, across Canada and around the world has to do with the amplification of inequities," she said.

For example, a family already experiencing stressors such a living in an area with a high incidence of COVID-19 may not be able to assist their six-year-old in navigating the online classroom, she said.

The group has been calling for a provincial task force -- to be comprised of educators, health officials, student associations and many others -- to advise the government on education during the pandemic.

A parents' group raised concerns about the province's plan earlier this week, questioning the rationale for reopening schools for in-person learning so soon when daily case counts are higher now than when the lockdown was first imposed.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 5, 2021.

Paola Loriggio, The Canadian Press