Home education highlights gaps in rural internet

School divisions are adapting with print materials, phone calls, adjusted expectations

Science experiments get complicated with twin toddlers running around.

Kaity, 10, and her mom Heather Janssens started an experiment on evaporation — filling a cup of water and coming back periodically to mark the water level to show if it dropped.

They took a break to play outside, and when they came in it looked like lots of water had evaporated. They were impressed.

“And then one of the three-year-olds said, ‘I drank some,’” said Janssens. “The challenges of homeschooling with toddlers.”

Janssens’ two oldest, Kaity and Lexi, 6, will be learning at home for the foreseeable future since schools closed on March 31 to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.

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The adjustment hasn’t been easy, but for Janssens, who owns a 4,800-acre grain farm near Boissevain with husband Mitch, there’s an added cost.

“I don’t want to look at what our internet bill is going to be,” Janssens said.

Their bill is usually a couple hundred dollars a month. With school at home (largely web based), working from home (Janssens is a communications co-ordinator with the Prairie Mountain Health Region), and more Netflix than usual, Janssens said the bill won’t be cheap.

Why it matters: For years, rural residents and advocacy groups have complained about poor, expensive web access interfering with life and work – now their kids’ education is supposed to rely on the internet.

Internet access is a hot topic among rural folks even in good times. For those who have it, it’s often far more expensive yet slower and less reliable than most city-dwellers experience. For others, it’s a luxury they can’t get, or can’t afford.

Rural school divisions, already adapting to distance education, are finding ways to reach those without web access.

“Our division staff members are creative and inspiring in working hard to meet the needs of their students,” said Bev Szymesko, superintendent of Turtle River School Division, east of Riding Mountain National Park. “We are very strong advocates for equitable access to education for all students.”

Szymesko said while many teachers are communicating with students through net-based platforms Microsoft Teams or Zoom, they’re developing print-based packages for the many students without internet access.

They’ve set up a drop-off and pickup point at schools for the print learning packages. Teachers are also using telephone courses and distance-learning options to support their students, Szymesko said.

Lakeshore School Division, in the upper Interlake, is considering using bus drivers to deliver course materials, said Donald Nikkel, superintendent of HR, policy and public relations.

When Nikkel spoke to the Co-operator, he was still gathering information on how many students were without internet access. However, all students Grade 5 and above have laptops as per division policy.

In Mountain View School Division, north of Riding Mountain, some teachers don’t have home internet, so they’re permitted to work out of school buildings so they can stay in touch with students, said superintendent Dan Ward.

The district is also adjusting its expectations, said Ward. It’s looking at a “weekly” time frame of when teachers are expected to contact students — depending on individual needs — recognizing it’s not realistic for teachers to try to get to each student every day.

“Our teachers are very, very eager to continue supplying that support,” Ward added.

They’re prioritizing the most essential curriculum, said Szymesko.

“Ensuring students have the skills, knowledge, and competencies they will need moving forward is of the most importance,” she said.

The province acknowledged that access to technology varies for students across Manitoba.

“We are working quickly with stakeholders across the province to scale up existing print-based options that are available, including those from the Distance Learning Unit within Manitoba Education. There is also a provincial working group dedicated to students with limited access to technology,” a spokesperson for the office of Kelvin Goertzen, minister of education, said in a statement.

Improving rural internet has been a long-standing refrain for Keystone Agricultural Producers, which recently launched a survey on rural connectivity to illustrate the underserved nature of some rural communities.

“COVID-19 is showing us all how vital the need to stay connected with each other via the internet and phone is,” KAP said in a statement. “We hope that when we come out of this pandemic, we are able to take the lessons we have learned by being required to work from home and build a more interconnected province.”

KAP said it’s compiling survey data to release the results in the next few weeks and will share it with all levels of government and major carriers in Manitoba.

About the author

Reporter

Geralyn Wichers

Geralyn Wichers grew up on a hobby farm near Anola, Manitoba, where her family raised cattle, pigs and chickens. Geralyn graduated from Red River College’s Creative Communications program in 2019 and was previously a reporter for The Carillon in Steinbach. Geralyn is also a published author of science fiction and fantasy novels.

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