‘I’m worried about my child’s education’: The Hamilton family struggles to stay connected offline

Aleasa Hurl is a social butterfly.

On a five-minute walk from school home, the seven-year-old interviewees are excited about her classmates, big owl eyes on her knitted tuk and a favorite recipe from a children’s cookbook.

At home, she travels from room to room to show off her belongings — Polly Pockets, family photo albums, a cuddly Minnie Mouse pillow and Tupperware containers full of books — and pets, Thomas, a mixed rescue shepherd from Mexico, and Charlie, the tabby orange cat.

She was giddy when she talks about teachers and friends at Lake Avenue Elementary School, down the street from their two-bedroom apartment in a high-rise in Stony Creek.

It’s easy to see why I give distance learning “one star” and thumbs down.

“It was awful, wasn’t it, Mom?” Al-Issa said.

The third-grader recalls the latest bout of distance learning caused by the pandemic, a two-week period after winter break, when she was practicing reading, writing, math and art with a pen instead of learning online with her peers. and paper resources that her mother got from school.

The family says they have been told that there are not enough iPads that support the Internet.

“We don’t have home internet, we don’t have cable. Like, we’re poor poor,” said her mother, Beth Hurrell. “So what do we do? … I’m not a teacher.”

Getting online isn’t an expectation of going to publicly funded school in Canada, but for some, it was the difference between staying connected and not during a pandemic.

Despite efforts to put devices within easy reach, many Ontario students have reported insufficient access to technology and the Internet over the past two years. In Canada, 31 percent of those in the lowest income group do not have access to the Internet at home, compared to six percent of middle-income families.

Hurl, a single parent with a high school diploma, relies on social assistance—about $2,000 a month—to support Alyssa and her teenage siblings, who split their time between Stony Creek and their father’s mountain home.

After paying nearly $1,000 in rent, plus utilities, a $73 mobile data plan, and food and clothes, there wasn’t enough money left for home internet.

In an email, Hamilton Wentworth School Board spokesman Sean McKillop said the school board apologizes “for the experience this family may have had while deploying the device and experimenting with distance learning,” adding that staff had made a “tremendous effort” to obtain On devices for students in a short period of time.

It’s unclear if other HWDSB students are in the same situation – the board said it was able to “mitigate” the reported hardware shortage.

In the end, 6,357 devices, 483 of which were online, were deployed during the January distance learning period. Kindergartens were not qualified due to lack of equipment.

At the time, HWDSB had about 24,000 iPads — more than half of which are for high school students, who get one to take home all year long — and since then they’ve acquired another 1,000.

Hurl said she doesn’t blame the school staff who, like the parents, are “scrambling.” It also recognizes that the board, which petitioned the county in January for funds to purchase the devices, also has limited funding.

But as a parent, her immediate concern is lost school days and reading tutoring sessions, a skill Alyssa struggles with.

“I’m not worried about funding. I’m not worried about any of these things,” Hurl said. “I’m worried about my child’s education.”

Alyssa Hurl with a book from her library that her friends gave her.

It’s no surprise that the pandemic has exacerbated existing gaps among students in Hamilton, said Sarah Glenn of the Hamilton Community Foundation, which oversees the organization’s COVID-19 education research.

“Distance learning is a challenge for many…but especially those students who are really struggling to participate,” she said. “This is mostly due to the technical and economic barriers related to distance learning.”

During the pandemic, HWDSB families have reported a myriad of technological challenges: not enough devices, ‘stretched’ bandwidth due to the influx of multiple users, ‘intermittent’ internet in rural areas, or, like the Hurl family, no home internet at all. McKillop said.

Studies have shown that many Canadian families do not have enough devices for the whole family. One survey found that 31 percent of parents said their children would likely have to use public Wi-Fi to complete school work.

The Internet is an “essential service,” said Marnie Schurter, co-chair of the Hamilton Acorn Mountain chapter.

“You need it for everything: work, school, applying for jobs, government programs, doctor appointments, staying connected with your community,” she said. “It’s a lifeline to the outside world, and everything takes place on the Internet.”

For years, ACORN has called on the federal government to pass legislation requiring telecommunications companies to provide service at reasonable rates — which means about $10 a month, she said. The internet available through existing supported software, which operates through providers such as Rogers and Bell, is “slow,” Shorter said.

“When you go to school, you need enough speeds,” she said.

Currently, the Hurl family runs a limited data plan and hard copy resources, such as books and encyclopedias.

But Hurl said they may have to “rethink” their Wi-Fi-free lifestyle once Aleasa enters middle school, when tasks require further research.

The board says there is “no expectation for families to have technology at home” when students learn in person. But Hurl knows that those with Internet access will have an advantage.

Later, she said, “that might be a bit of a hindrance.”