When the COVID pandemic hit our shores last winter, school systems wound down their classes towards the end of March and attempted to teach online and via other means. Many challenges were uncovered, with the digital divide being a significant challenge to families that could not afford computers and internet services. In the US, a Pew Research study[i] found that during the spring lockdown 36 percent of low-income parents reported that their children were unable to complete their schoolwork at home because they did not have access to a computer.

Some school systems anticipated this technology problem as being beyond their scope of capability to address so they stayed with a paper system and physically distributed materials in their urban regions. In rural and remote regions, some learning activities just ceased for combined reasons of lack of broadband connectivity and regional quarantines prohibiting teachers and others from entering those areas.[ii]

When it came time to assess students’ final grades, these were assigned based what the grades were before classes were suspended, however, with online and paper activities, students had the opportunity to improve these grades. While this would have worked well for many students with access to the necessary technology, those without would have had a poor finish as papered systems flow information only one way. In addition, some school systems would not fail students who had difficulties with their courses, and now a fall return puts these students at a disadvantage as these students did not complete their previous work and now the class materials have escalated to the next grade.[iii] Now that the fall is here, there has been a considerable interest in reopening the schools during this pandemic. The challenge here has been how to reopen these schools when the infection rates are now higher than they were when the schools were closed in the first place.

Source: www.theconversation.com
This is an example of a socially distanced class with students wearing masks.

Source:  www.nature.com
This is an example of a class where social distance cannot be maintained so shields are used around each desk, again with students wearing masks.

Schools have attempted to distance students, improve ventilation, reorganize desks, add shields, use separate entrances, enforce mask policies and the like. Much of the funds provided came in the last month before school reopened, making contracting and related activity very hard to implement before the schools reopened. As one can imagine, with schools hosting several hundred students, little lapses can have consequences. After the schools opened, some classes have seen infections resulting in cleaning and send-home policies which were instituted when infections arose.

Some families cannot afford the risk of infection. Siblings, parents and even grandparents are living in the family bubble and some of them may be immunocompromised.  These multigenerational families cannot take the chance that the COVID-19 virus reaches their home. As a result, children who should be in school need to take remote classes. In some cases, these students have the technology available to them; but in many cases, they do not have the necessary technology. Added to this complication is that school boards did not plan well enough for class splits between those attending school and those that need to remain in the family bubble. These binary choices were poorly thought through. And now we see students that cannot return to classes because of this domestic challenge, while others are braving the pandemic, often for family economy reasons, and are returning to school.

The Toronto District School Board intends to sort out this challenge with additional hiring to support virtual learners. Some 500 additional teachers will be hired to attend to these learners, which represent some 30% of the total enrollment.[i] Across Canada, these steps will be replicated in some form or other as school boards recognize the gravity of this split between online learning requirements and in-class attendance.

The digital divide that existed at the end of the last school year has not been addressed in the interim. Family economic factors have been strained; if families could not buy a laptop in March, they are even more unlikely to be able to buy it now. Added to this is the governmental priorities in managing the COVID pandemic and trying to effect economic recovery while COVID infection rates are escalating during the second wave of the pandemic. While these measures are being sorted out, there are still about 2.2 million Canadian households who do not have access to affordable, reliable high-speed internet.[ii] Many sources report that 30% of the low-income families do not have access to the necessary computer technology.

Rural challenges to the Digital Divide include a lack of infrastructure. The further the client is from a populated centre, the less likelihood that there will be reliable internet access. For those that have rural broadband, their download speeds are less than one-tenth of the download speeds of their fellow citizens in urban Canada.[iii] So, what is being done about the digital divide challenges? Firstly, the Canadian government has re-introduced and encouraged the acceleration of its broadband policy and some $1.7 Billion in infrastructure funding that goes with that policy, with an indication that $500 million was available on an expedited basis. This will address at least some rural and remote communities needs for broadband.  As for the second part – providing technology to families in need – there is nothing on the horizon which will bring some closure to this challenge.

The following graphic shows the differences between download speeds between urban and rural Canada in 2019-2020

Figure 1: CIRA – The Rural/Urban Internet Divide 2019-2020

Source: www.cira.ca

Canada needs a low-income family technology program. There are many considerations here that affect Canada and other nation’s health and equity status. The Centres for Disease Control (CDC) reports that there is increasing evidence that some racial and ethnic minority groups are being disproportionately affected by COVID-19[i].  Inequities in the social determinants of health, such as poverty and healthcare access, affecting these groups are interrelated and influence a wide range of health and quality-of-life outcomes and risks.[ii]

So, in any event and under any circumstance, children need to be educated. And COVID-19 has exacerbated the Digital Divide, particularly in this area. Either the schools provide their students with computer technology that will last at least one tech generation of activity (i.e. about 3 years), or a direct assistance program is needed.

Who will step up here?

[i] https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/community/health-equity/race-ethnicity.html

[i] https://www.cp24.com/news/tdsb-aims-to-have-teachers-for-all-virtual-students-by-mid-to-late-next-week-1.5119531

[ii] https://www.telesat.com/universal-connectivity/

[iii] https://www.cira.ca/newsroom/new-internet-performance-data-shows-staggering-scale-canadas-urban-rural-digital-divide

[i] https://www.wired.com/story/schools-digital-divide-remote-learning/

[ii] https://www.cbc.ca/news/indigenous/garden-hill-school-coronavirus-1.5547148

[iii] https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/pandemic-learning-gap-1.5732441