Posted March 16, 2022
Aleasa Hurl is a social butterfly.
In the five-minute walk home from school, the seven-year-old chatters excitedly about classmates, the big owl eyes on her knit tuque and a favourite recipe from a kids’ cookbook.
At home, she travels from room to room showing off her belongings — thrifted Polly Pockets, family photo albums, a beloved Minnie Mouse pillow and Tupperware containers crammed with books — and pets, Thomas, a shepherd mix rescue from Mexico, and Charlie, an orange tabby cat.
She is animated when she talks about teachers and friends at Lake Avenue Elementary School, down the street from their two-bedroom apartment in a Stoney Creek highrise building.
It’s easy to see why she gives remote learning “one star” and a thumbs down.
“It was horrible, right, mom?” Aleasa said.
The third-grade student is referring to the most recent bout of pandemic-induced remote learning, a two-week period following winter break, when, instead of learning online with her peers, she practised reading, writing, math and art using pen-and-paper resources her mom picked up from the school.
The family says they were told there weren’t enough internet-enabled iPads to go around.
“We don’t have home internet, we don’t have cable. Like, we’re bottom-of-the-barrel poor,” said her mother, Beth Hurl. “So, what do we do? ... I’m not a teacher.”
Having internet access isn’t an expectation of attending publicly funded school in Canada, but, for some, it’s been the difference between staying connected and not during the pandemic.
Despite efforts to get devices into hands, many Ontario students have reported insufficient access to technology and internet over the last two years. In Canada, 31 per cent of those in the lowest income group don’t have access to home internet, compared to six per cent of middle-income families.
Hurl, a single parent with a high school diploma, relies on social assistance — about $2,000 a month — to support Aleasa and her teenage siblings, who split their time between Stoney Creek and their dad’s Mountain home.
After paying nearly $1,000 in rent, plus utilities, a $73 cellphone data plan, food and clothes, there isn’t enough money left for home internet.
In an email, Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board spokesperson Shawn McKillop said the school board apologizes “for the experience that this family may have had during device deployment and the experience during remote learning,” adding that staff made a “tremendous effort” to get devices to students in a short period of time.
It’s unclear whether other HWDSB students were in the same situation — the board said it was able to “mitigate” a reported device shortage.
Ultimately, 6,357 devices, 483 of them internet-enabled, were deployed in during the January remote learning period. Kindergarteners were not eligible due to a shortage of devices.
At the time, the HWDSB had about 24,000 iPads — more than half allocated to secondary students, who get a device to take home for the year — and has since acquired 1,000 more.
Hurl said she doesn’t blame school staff who, just like parents, are “scrambling.” She also understands that the board, which in January petitioned the province for money for devices, also has limited funding.
But, as a parent, her immediate concern is the missed school days and tutoring sessions for reading, a skill Aleasa struggles with.
“I’m not worried about funding. I’m not worried about any of that stuff,” Hurl said. “I’m worried about my kid’s education.”
Hamilton Community Foundation’s Sarah Glen, who oversees the organization’s COVID-19 education research, said, unsurprisingly, the pandemic has exacerbated existing gaps among students in Hamilton.
“Remote learning is a challenge for many ... but especially those students who are already struggling to engage,” she said. “That’s mostly due to the technical and economic barriers related to remote learning.”
Throughout the pandemic, HWDSB families have reported a myriad of technological challenges: not enough devices, “stretched” bandwidth due to multiple users streaming, “spotty” internet in rural areas or, like the Hurl family, no home internet at all, McKillop said.
Studies have shown that many Canadian households do not have enough devices for everyone in the family. One survey found 31 per cent of parents said their kids would likely have to use public Wi-Fi to complete school work.
Marnie Schurter, co-chair of Hamilton ACORN Mountain chapter, said internet is an “essential service.”
“You need it for everything: work, school, applying for jobs, government programs, doctor’s appointments, staying connected to your community,” she said. “It’s a lifeline to the outside world, and everything is going online.”
For years, ACORN has called on the federal government to pass legislation that would require telecommunications companies to offer service at affordable rates — which means around $10 a month, she said. Schurter said internet available through existing subsidized programs, which operate through providers like Rogers and Bell, is “slow.”
“When you’re going to school, you need adequate speeds,” she said.
For now, the Hurl family manages with a limited data plan and hard copy resources, like books and encyclopedias.
But Hurl said they may have to “rethink” their Wi-Fi-free lifestyle once Aleasa enters middle school, when assignments require more research.
The board says there “are no expectations for families to have technology at home” when students are learning in person. But Hurl knows that those with access to the internet will have an advantage.
“Later on, it might be a bit of a hindrance,” she said.
Article by Kate McCullough for the Hamilton Spectator