accessibility Canada Covid-19

Online teaching resources out of reach for many rural families

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 Mia Urquhart 5 hrs ago 

Mispec mom Jessica Doyle listened with interest when education officials suggested a whole host of online resources to help students continue learning at home. 

As an artist, she loved the idea of taking a virtual tour of a museum with her two young girls. 

But the reality is that it’s not going to happen for the Mispec family and their super-slow internet service. 

“For me, it’s painful,” said Doyle. 

“I can’t access a lot of stuff like people are saying… It’s so data-intensive that we can’t partake in that stuff. So we’re going back to older roots.”

She’s decided to give her daughters a slightly different education — more old-school. 

“We just bought nine chickens, so we’re going to have a chicken house to educate them in other ways.”

There’s also lots of arts and crafts and cooking. Doyle said she tries to incorporate math and measuring where she can. 

As for real school work, Doyle said they’re doing the best they can with limited technology. She communicates with six-year-old Willow’s teacher by telephone and tries to plan activities that don’t require the internet. 

Fortunately, said Doyle, teachers sent students home with their workbooks on the last day of school. 

Willow does her work on old-fashioned paper sheets, and then Doyle takes a picture of it and texts it to the teacher. 

While it’s only the first week of working this way, Doyle said it’s already been stressful. 

And she’s definitely not alone.  All across the province, there are students trying to keep up with school work with limited or no internet service. 

Exactly how many isn’t yet known, said Zoë Watson, superintendent of Anglophone School District–South. 

She’s hopeful to have a better picture of how many students “will not be able to engage in on-line learning opportunities” by next week. 

Watson said connectivity is one of the topics that has been discussed at length. a close up of a person using a computer mouse and keyboard: Educators are still working with those families without internet to figure out how to support at-home learning. © Jenny Kane/The Associated Press Educators are still working with those families without internet to figure out how to support at-home learning.

“We know, for example, in some of our inner city [Saint John] schools, this number could be significant, as well as in a few other communities in ASD-South. 

“Principals and teachers have great ideas about how to support these students  — packages of work put together and resources delivered to homes, having pick-up spots, etc.” 

But those options are not possible under the provincial state of emergency, said Watson. 

“We will be ready when the time comes and it is deemed safe to do,” she said. 

In the meantime, schools are connecting with students by phone to “check in and support them as much as they can,” said Watson.

Internet for all

The Federation of Canadian Municipalities has been calling on government for years to provide reliable internet to all Canadians. 

“It’s hard to realize how essential quality internet service is until something like this pandemic hits your municipality,” said Ray Orb, the federation’s rural forum chair. 

“Rural communities face distinct challenges,” he said. “Broadband is a vital lifeline right now. Downloading files and accessing content online is essential not only for students and workers, but for everyone who needs to stay informed and apply to federal and provincial aid programs.”

Orb said the federation has been working with the federal government for 10 years, trying to get better broadband service for rural, remote and northern communities, and will continue to do so. 

He said the pandemic highlights the gaps that exist between different areas across the country.

Rural internet

For the service providers, it comes down to dollars and customers. Remote areas simply don’t have the numbers to make it worth the investment. 

“Bell is the largest investor in communications infrastructure in New Brunswick,” said company spokesperson Isabelle Boulet. 

“We continue to expand service availability, however advanced broadband networks are very costly to build and operate, and the business case for further expansion in remote or sparsely populated areas is always a challenge.”

Boulet said Bell is “always open to discuss funding partnerships with government and communities for expansion in areas that can’t be supported by private investment alone.”

When Doyle moved to the community of Mispec — which is roughly 15 minutes from Saint John’s uptown and a mere two minutes from fibre op — she knew the internet service would be limited. Her only option was satellite coverage. It wasn’t great, but they got by with the fuzzy pictures and endless download times. 

But now, that spotty service is her educational tool and her lifeline to family and friends. Add to that, the fact that so many of her neighbours are also relying on the same coverage, and things get very frustrating, said Doyle. 

“It’s practically impossible to watch TV at night now. It’s so blurry that it’s big squares.”

And FaceTiming her parents takes up a huge chunk of precious data. 

“We have no cable. Our phone lines are so old that you can’t put dial-up on them. It’s like we’re in the Bermuda Triangle of internet.”

So, while Willow is learning plenty of life skills at home, Doyle is doing her best to incorporate school work, too. 

“I’m trying to keep up the math, phonics and spelling — just those three basic things, because they get a lot of creativity from me,” she said.