When the pandemic closed schools in 2020, student Megan Klose nonetheless found herself travelling to the Haliburton Highlands Secondary School parking lot.
Online learning proved challenging with their family’s internet quality. To make do, they utilized the school’s WiFi hotspot, with her mother – a teacher – working from the front seat and Klose taking a class from the back.
“My family faced significant disadvantages because of our internet connection,” Klose said.
County council heard that and other stories of connection problems from a delegation headed by Point in Time Jan. 13. The organization is seeking financial support to help students struggling to learn due to a lack of online connectivity. Point in Time executive director Marg Cox said it is an issue affecting approximately 150 children and youth in the County.
She highlighted a survey they conducted with 59 local youth, with only 14 per cent reporting they had reliable internet and 54 per cent reporting having less-than-unlimited data.
“We’re really mounting a campaign focused on, are you in for internet in Haliburton County,” Cox said. The group presented two policy goals: long-term solutions to connectivity barriers and short-term solutions for youth in urgent need. For the short-term, they offered ideas like cellular data plans or hubs, increasing community access point alternatives, and meeting the transportation needs of those who cannot get to hotspots.
County-born McGill University professor Michael Mackenzie said the issue is impacting many students, but not evenly.
“The existing disparities have really widened for those most in need of connection,” MacKenzie said. “Both to educational opportunities and to supportive services during COVID … Being connected is critical for the development, health and wellbeing of youth.”
Coun. Andrea Roberts praised the presentation and asked about the Ministry of Education’s responsibility to address the issue. Cox said the group is interested in working with all levels of government.
“We’re very concerned that if we wait for provincial intervention that the youth in our County will be losing credits,” Cox said. “We concur that we feel that we’d really like to see the Ministry of Education stepping up here. But in lieu of that, we feel we still need to move forward.”
Cox said public hotspots are important, but there are hurdles such as ensuring they are robust enough to handle an increased load and they do not lead to people gathering too much for public health protocols.
Council did not pass any specific motion to address the issue but agreed to advocate to upper levels of government and consider financial support in the 2021 budget.
“Our community deserves and needs equitable access to the necessities and in the world that we’re living in, internet is a necessity,” Klose said. “It’s something we all need and it’s not fair to the students that can’t get that access.”
Joseph Quigley, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Highlander