By Chad Ingram
County-based social services agency Point in Time is launching a campaign to assist students and their families with the cost of internet connectivity in the virtual learning environment created by the COVID-19 pandemic.
With schools in southern Ontario closed until at least Jan. 25, students are expected to attend classes virtually. However, as Haliburton County councillors heard in a presentation from Point in Time during a Jan. 13 online meeting, not only does poor connectivity in parts of the county cause an impediment, but so does the amount of data attending online school requires, pushing many family data plans past their limits.
Additionally, many students are opting for full-time online learning amid the ongoing pandemic, and on snow days, rather than classes being cancelled, students are expected to tune in online.
“We’re certainly very concerned about the impact of COVID on youths in Haliburton County … and how it has amplified the connectivity or internet issue,” Point in Time executive director Marg Cox told councillors. Cox said there are 150 children and youth in the county who can’t attend school virtually, but who are supposed to be right now. Cox said there is concern some of these students may not be able to earn their credits.
Michael MacKenzie, a professor of social work at McGill University and a seasonal resident of the county, was part of Point in Time’s delegation. MacKenzie noted the ongoing pandemic has widened already existent gaps for residents who may be struggling.
“The existing disparities have really widened for those most in need of connection, both for educational opportunities and supportive services, during COVID,” he said.
MacKenzie said Haliburton Highlands Secondary School had done some polling of its students before the holiday break, which showed 14 per cent of students reported having reliable access to the internet at home, and that 10 per cent reported having no device by which to access the internet.
While the Trillium Lakelands District School Board has been providing devices for students to use, “the data issue remains deeply concerning.”
MacKenzie said 54 per cent of students reported having less than unlimited access to data, and that many family data plans were for somewhere between five and 20 gigabytes per month. Classes convene via application Google Meet.
“Google Meet requires between .5 and 1.5 gigabytes per hour of class,” MacKenzie explained. “So we’re talking about significant numbers of kids, even amongst those who do have internet access, where just six to 10 hours of class streaming per month would be beyond their family’s entire data allotment.”
Councillors also heard there have been cases of college and university students living in the county who were expected to learn remotely this school year who were not able to continue with their studies for the time being due to lack of connectivity.
Megan Klose, a student rep from HHHS, shared a number of anecdotes about the challenges of virtual learning with councillors, including students sitting in cars outside the high school in order to access a signal and do their work, as well as multiple members of a family working from one vehicle. While students are expected to learn online during snow days, Klose said for some, poor weather basically eliminates their internet connectivity.
“Especially people with different socio-economic statuses, it puts people behind in their education,” she said.
“Our campaign is really targeted towards those who otherwise really can’t financially afford the connectivity or internet costs,” Cox said. Cox said the United Way had directed some $7,000 in federal funding toward the cause, and that with the assistance of county chief administrative officer Mike Rutter, some $14,000 in unspent camp funding through the City of Kawartha Lakes, the social services provider for the county, was able to be redirected to help students with data costs. Cox said Point in Time has also been in touch with the Coalition of Haliburton Property Owners’ Associations and was hoping it would help canvass its member associations. The organization is also looking to the county for financial assistance.
Cox said the cost to provide one family with sufficient internet for a month is about $100, so with 150 families, that cost is $15,000 per month, or about $180,000 a year.
Dysart et al Mayor Andrea Roberts wondered where the provincial government and the Ministry of Education was in all of this, in terms of responsibility to ensure all students have adequate internet access for online learning.
“We’re very concerned that if we wait for provincial intervention, that the youth in our county will be losing credits,” Cox said.
While Algonquin Highlands Mayor Carol Moffatt acknowledged the need was obvious, she expressed concern about the county picking up what should be someone else’s tab.
“One of the things we’ve talked about before at our tables and at this table, is when you … when you start paying the costs that others should bear in the course of their existence, such as the school board or the provincial government, sometimes that then becomes the norm,” Moffatt said.
County council will consider the request as part of its 2021 budget deliberations.
Moffatt also suggested the county should be writing letters to the province and school board regarding what the online learning situation looks like on the ground in Haliburton County.
“We need to get the word out that we need to help youth prosper, here,” she said.