'You're glitchy': Two weeks in, rural online learning still a struggle for some

·4 min read

Bumped from online lessons, staring into black screens and teachers’ voices cutting out – that’s been the education experience for some rural students in the region since learning went remote.

But two weeks in, the options to support rural families who have poor internet access and also live in cellphone dead zones are still few and far between.

“You can hear every morning, ‘You’re glitchy, you’re getting cut out, I can’t hear you,’” Kelly Elliott said. “Everyone is struggling.”

The Thames Centre deputy mayor lives in an area that can’t get consistent cell service. Coupled with slow internet, online learning becomes challenging for her two children.

“We’re making it through the best we can,” Elliott said. “I think that’s all we can do.”

While most school boards are supplying LTE-enabled devices to support families without internet access, they do no good if they can’t get a cell signal, like at Elliott’s house.

Minister of Education Stephen Lecce says it's up to individual school boards to come up with plans for these families.

“School boards are required to make provisions and adaptations for those students who are unable to learn remotely due to connectivity issues to ensure the continuity of learning,” said Caitlin Clark, a spokesperson for the minister.

Clark said the Doug Ford Progressive Conservative government has invested nearly $1 billion to expand rural broadband and cellular service. Last week, Lecce announced $80 million to buy more online learning and connectivity devices.

In-person learning outside of COVID-19 hot spots is scheduled to resume Jan. 25.

Elliott said the province’s response puts too much onus on already strained school boards and teachers.

“Everybody is just looking to everyone else to come up with a solution is the most frustrating part,” she said.

The Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario slammed Lecce’s approach.

“ETFO has repeatedly expressed concern to the Ministry of Education about gaps in equitable and consistent access to live streaming/synchronous learning,” president Sam Hammond said in an email. “Issues with internet connectivity, and limited access to high-quality internet service and devices continue to disadvantage students across Ontario.”

Hammond said educators are doing their best to adapt to support all students, including providing paper resources when necessary.

“These challenges will not disappear tomorrow,” he said. “This is why the provincial government must invest in additional safety measures now so we can resume in-person learning, which provides the best experience for learning, quality delivery, and is the most equitable model for all students.”

Avon-Maitland parent Amy VanStraaten, who lives on a farm with spotty internet near Rostock, 10 minutes from Stratford, said her children are “off to a bumpy start” with online learning.

Her children are in kindergarten and Grade 1.

While the Avon-Maitland school board provided her with an LTE-enabled device for her kids, it uses Rogers cellular data, which doesn’t cover her area.

“We’re kind of in limbo right now,” she said.

Jane Morris, an Avon-Maitland superintendent, said they’re aware of three families in the region who aren’t able to connect with the Rogers LTE-devices.

The board has acquired Bell SIM cards and is supplying those to families starting Thursday in hopes it gets the students online.

“If that doesn’t work, we’re going to have to try to figure out what telco (telecommunications company) does provide coverage to those specific addresses,” Morris said.

Some 200 LTE devices have gone out in the Avon-Maitland region. Families who opted not to do online learning receive paper packages by mail every two weeks.

Morris said she wouldn’t want families forced into this option due to lack of internet. “It doesn’t provide the kind of rich educational experience that I think families need.”

Since online learning began Jan. 5, VanStraaten has been using her personal cellular data to connect her kids to online learning and has already run through her monthly 20 gigabytes in just two weeks.

She said the poor-quality connection is disrupting her children’s learning and social development.

“The kindergartener, with not being able to see her class and teachers, a lot of what they’re doing is very visual . . . she’s having a really hard time,” VanStraaten said. “We’ve basically said we’ll join when internet allows.”

Her daughter in Grade 1 is struggling as well when she can’t see or hear her classmates and teacher.

“She’ll get frustrated and just burst into tears,” her mother said.

VanStraaten said more could have been done to prepare for remote learning and to support rural families who can’t connect by broadband or cellular service.

“It’s frustrating that we’re this far into (the pandemic), looking at another lockdown which we all saw coming and we are still waiting for a solution,” she said.

She hopes the pandemic is a catalyst for the provincial and federal governments to prioritize investments in rural broadband service.

“We’ve been saying it since the early 2000s. It's 20 years later and we still have this problem.”

maxmartin@postmedia.com

The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada.

Max Martin, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, London Free Press