Online learning efforts reach creative highs, but infrastructure remains big issue

Remote learning has become the norm amid the pandemic, but it’s also showing the cracks in northwestern Ontario’s infrastructure.

Rainy River District School Board (RRDSB) and Keewatin Patricia District School Board (KPDSB) have both been giving internet hubs or sticks to students who have difficulties with either cellphone service or their internet connections.

Hubs and sticks help boost the connectivity in areas that may be lacking, so students can connect to their classrooms.

Heather Campbell, director of education for RRDSB, said that at the beginning of January, roughly 90 devices in the system went to students across the district. To date, that has increased to well over 200.

“We really worried about our students and want them to be successful, but more importantly, we also want them to be mentally healthy, and we know that the pandemic has been a great toll on the mental health,” said Campbell.

“So in order to help our students connect and give them a little bit more reliable connectivity, we’ve purchased more hubs and sticks to help them.”

In the beginning, they relied on paper packages for students, then eventually moved on to tethering phones that can increase data and connectivity for Chromebooks.

Using data to support our students is a short-term solution, and what we really need to see is increased bandwidth across our district and across our region.– Heather Campbell, RRDSB

“I mean it’s not [an] ideal situation. It really speaks to the need for greater connectivity in the North,” said Campbell.

“Using data to support our students is a short-term solution, and what we really need to see is increased bandwidth across our district and across our region.”

Sherri-Lynne Pharand, director of education for KPDSB, said the board has spent up to $35,000 on these devices for those who need the extra boost, and the Ontario Ministry of Education provided funding to help offset those costs.

Heather Campbell, RRDSB’s director of education, says the pandemic “has been a great toll on the mental health’ of students. (Submitted by Heather Campbell)

Pharand said even though students get help, there are challenges with using such devices due to areas in northwestern Ontario where there’s no cell service or cellphone lines.

“The hubs don’t work in those areas and we do still have students who live in areas that don’t have access,” she said.

“So often … we’ve had to be creative. We have to send work; teachers will phone them or contact them in any way possible in order to ensure that they still have that assistance with their work as needed.”

She said while providing hubs and sticks was the best option available, there needs to be an extension of connectivity in the North.

Pharand says teachers are coming up with creative ways to stay in touch with students in case they have connection problems. (Submitted by Sheena Pilipishen)

“What will be important in the future is ensuring the extension of access to Wi-Fi throughout all areas of Ontario, so that all students and all adults who are working from home have the same opportunity for access to the internet.”

In March, Ontario committed in its budget to spend an additional $2.8 billion on improving internet access across the province by 2025.

For its part, the federal government, in its April budget, said it would be adding $1 billion to a fund for improving high-speed communications in rural and remote areas of Canada, bringing the total to $2.75 billion by 2026. The money would be going into the Universal Broadband Fund, designed to support the installation of infrastructure that connects underserved communities to high-speed internet, with the goal of bringing high-speed broadband in 98 per cent of the country by 2026 and 100 per cent by 2030.

Such efforts couldn’t come soon enough for schools, boards, teachers and students, especially as remote learning is supposed to continue into the next school year.

Stick, hub ‘not a miracle worker’

Bobbi Guimond-Morris, a Grade 3-4 teacher at Sturgeon Creek School in Barwick, said it’s a challenging time to be a teacher, although the school board has been doing its best to accommodate the needs of students and teachers during remote learning.

“The learning and all the issues that we’re having with connectivity, it’s not a rocket hub or cellphone issue — it’s a tower issue, it’s an infrastructure issue,” said Guimond-Morris, who is from Couchiching First Nation.

Bobbi Guimond-Morris, a Grade 3-4 teacher at Sturgeon Creek School, says the infrastructure ‘is not there to meet the demands and to support all the bandwidth that’s needed to do online learning.’ (Submitted by Bobbi Guimond-Morris)

Guimond-Morris said the board is doing everything it can to help students and teachers, but she and other students live near areas where they’re out of reach from two cellphone towers.

Even if they have an internet hub, stick or cellphone, the signal or connection wouldn’t be better.

“It’s not a miracle worker … [the infrastructure] is not there to meet the demands and to support all the bandwidth that’s needed to do online learning,” said Guimond-Morris.

“We don’t have the infrastructure in northwestern Ontario. We don’t have cell towers. We don’t have enough of those to provide or to meet the demands of everyone here. We need fibre optics in order to support them, and that’s needed to support online learning.”

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