With the countdown to back-to-school on, boards are racing to make sure kids staying home this fall have access to the computers and internet they need for remote learning.
But big gaps remain, say some advocates, as the pandemic puts a spotlight on the digital divide in the GTA.
Despite the efforts of principals and teachers, Vivian Lee, a charity consultant who has worked in the non-profit sector on education for marginalized youth, describes the situation as “a total tire fire mess.” While it’s not as bad as in remote northern Ontario communities that are “basically in 2005,” the pandemic has exposed existing fault lines around internet access and tech in the GTA.
“There’s been a lot of tape and glue approaches,” she said. “Now you’ve got a visible digital divide.”
Lower-income families may only have one or two devices per household. Even if they have home internet it might not be fast enough to support several kids plus possibly their parents, all juggling Zoom calls, e-learning modules and streaming. Without a digital connection kids risk falling behind, and may end up being sent to school just because their parents don’t really have the option of keeping them home, she said.
After COVID-19 abruptly shut down schools this spring, teachers at the Toronto District School Board, which has about 247,000 students, scrambled to distribute around 60,000 devices.
Spokesperson Ryan Bird said in an email that all the students who received a remote learning device still have them, except for those graduating or leaving the board.
The TDSB will continue to cover the cost of data on the 7,500 internet-enabled iPads it distributed, as a program where Rogers was providing free wireless data has ended. The board has also purchased 7,400 new Chromebooks to backfill the gap that was left when they were pulled out of schools and given to kids at home.
The Toronto Catholic District School Board issued about 10,500 devices to students, including 6,100 Chromebooks and 4,400 iPads, starting in April, said a spokesperson in an email. About 1,250 were to students who needed internet access at home, so they provided LTE data-enabled iPads.
Students who are continuing with the board still have those devices.
The board, which has 91,000 students, plans to offer “similar services to new students in September on (a) request basis,” said a spokesperson in an email. The board did not provide an estimate of how many students that would be, or how many additional devices they would be able to purchase.
At the Peel District School Board, an additional 13,000 new Chromebooks will be loaned to students who need them, on top of around 20,000 devices that were already distributed by the board, which has 153,000 students, spokesperson Kayla Tishcoff said in an email.
The Chromebooks do not come with data.
If kids still need the devices from the spring for distance learning, they can keep them for the year; if they’re returning for in-person learning, they would give them back.
On top of this, the board has an existing refurbishing program, where old, discarded devices are fixed up and recycled for kids who need them.
About 2,200 devices from community partners were given to students in the spring, and families get to keep them. There are an additional 2,000 devices available for this fall through this program.
The Chromebooks, said Lee, are “cheap and cheerful,” but they need high-speed internet.
“These schools are sending out Chromebooks as a stopgap measure, but if these families don’t have internet it’s useless, it’s a paperweight,” she said.
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According to early results from board surveys, about a quarter of parents in the province plan to keep their children home full time this fall. But high school kids will need devices and internet access to keep up with the remote components of their curriculum.
A lack of high-speed internet and tech at home is one factor, along with the need for child care, that is pushing families who might not really feel comfortable to send their kids back to brick and mortar school, said Lee.
“The option to keep your kids home is a privilege,” she said.
She proposes that schools could use libraries and community centres as spaces for smaller groups of kids as makeshift classrooms.
As well, major telecom companies should lift their fees for going over data limits on mobile phones, she said, which kids could use for virtual learning.
Caitlin Clark, a spokesperson for Education Minister Stephen Lecce, said in an email that the government recognizes “that people across Ontario need reliable broadband to work, learn and connect with friends and family.”
Fifteen million dollars in “technology funding” will support getting 35,000 devices for Ontario’s students. The province has also pledged that all students will have access to “reliable, fast, secure and affordable internet services at school” by the 2021-22 school year, she added.
ACORN Canada, an advocacy group for low- and moderate-income families, has long been sounding the alarm on the digital divide with its “Internet for All” campaign.
Member Alejandra Ruiz-Vargas said the issue is more relevant than ever. She’d like to see telecom providers offer a low-cost budget product for families in need, similar to what Telus has developed in B.C. and Alberta.
“It’s going to be a problem for sure,” she said, just “another stress” on stretched family budgets that may have already been trimmed due to layoffs or lost hours.
She, too, thinks the lack of high-speed internet at home might be pushing some parents to send kids back to school. Many can only afford a less than ideal internet product that just can’t handle more than one kid using it full time.
“In this pandemic these are services that are totally in need.”
Article by May Warren for the Toronto Star