Lack of computers, internet access exposes shortfall of at-home learning in Manitoba

By | April 14, 2020

The sudden need for at-home learning is exposing a divide between the students with computers and internet access — and those who don’t.

The imbalance is preventing families like Katherine Clifton’s from enjoying the same type of education.

Her nine-year-old son Kaiden doesn’t have a computer for his studies, a near-necessity while the coronavirus cancels in-school classes indefinitely. 

“He is missing out,” the Winnipeg mother said.

Clifton said she can still print work sheets from her cellphone, but the interactive websites and games that she said enhance his learning are out of reach.

“He’s missing out on important education. He’s a kid, he likes interactive stuff … and these things that they offer in school to him, he’s not getting at home.”

Katherine Clifton and her son Kaiden are looking forward to a donation of a computer that will make at-home learning an easier task for their family. (Submitted/Katherine Clifton)

The single mother from Transcona is grateful that will change soon. She’ll be receiving a computer donation from Inspire Community Outreach, a non-profit organization in Winnipeg trying to address the inequity. 

“The over 700 requests that we’ve had in one week is telling me that this need is quite high,” said Angela Taylor, who founded the organization.

She’s partnered with another non-profit organization — Computers for Schools — to get the technology to needed hands. They can probably deliver 400 computers on their own, and now they’re asking private companies for help.

“I’m very concerned for my community,” Taylor said. “I wish that I could do more right now.”

40 per cent of students could go without

The Winnipeg School Division suspects as many as 40 per cent of the division’s students don’t have access to computers at home.

It’s a “very rough estimate,” spokesperson Radean Carter told CBC News, speaking to the high proportion of low-income families in Winnipeg’s inner-city and North End.

They are thinking of loaning 5,000 Chromebooks in the division’s inventory, Carter said, while support staff are busy printing off papers for students reliant on pen and paper. 

The Louis Riel School Division have already lent 250 of their laptops, with more to come, superintendent Christian Michalik said.

Christian Michalik, superintendent at the Louis Riel School Division, says his division has reconfigured 250 of their laptops to be delivered to students who need them. (Submitted/Louis Riel School Division)

“If anything, this is bringing to light the very reality that there is an inequity,” he said of the pandemic that’s shut down in-person classes since March 23.

“It takes this unprecedented situation we’re in, where we’re having to move to remote learning for everyone, that the true reality, the true scope of it comes to light.”

The division is in talks with internet service providers to address the lack of connectivity some families are facing, he said.

Teachers across the province are meeting students where they’re at. 

Jackie Ross is essentially making house calls. She strolls through the Wolseley neighbourhood, visiting homes and reading to students from afar, often from the sidewalk. She is sure to maintain at least two metres from her elementary-aged students, she says.

Jackie Ross, a Winnipeg School Division teacher, has been taking her classroom on the road. She says the technological limitations of her students is one of the reasons why she decided to hit the road with her books. (Submitted/Jackie Ross)

Before this, Ross was hearing from parents who said their children were missing their teacher.

“I was kind of struggling myself, just trying to come up with a new way to teach without my audience,” Ross said. “Those kids are the whole reason that I’m a teacher.”

She worried, too, about the kids who aren’t online.

Teachers remain committed 

“I think in my classroom, more students do than do not. However, they don’t all have enough gadgets with the parents working from home right now to be sitting on the computer for hours at a time,” Ross said.

“I just thought if there’s a way I can get out there and make a connection, especially because they’re younger kids, then I should do what I can.”

Students may have a computer and internet access, but may not have enough data, a fast enough connection or enough devices at home for the whole family, explained Kevin Lopuck, a high school social studies teacher in Selkirk, Man.

Regardless of the differences, he said teachers are committed.

“The bottom line is we’ll find a way to engage these kids.”

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