Students with poor internet access struggling to learn in online classrooms

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By Jes Mason

Some Toronto students are still struggling to access their online classrooms 11 months into the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced schools to close their physical doors last March.

Sonam Matho, an assistant curriculum leader in the special education department at Western Technical-Commercial School in the Toronto District School Board, said some students are struggling with online learning. 

 “A lot of my students aren’t fine. I’m getting emails from teachers saying ‘this student’s mic isn’t working, or this student doesn’t have wi-fi.’”

Matho said the pandemic has only heightened inequities around access to technology. 

“Students are concerned, they’re worried, they’re struggling. Maybe their parents have COVID, maybe…the wi-fi is cutting out, maybe they don’t have enough technology because they’re sharing it with two other siblings.”

According to Matho, when students are grappling with all these stressors, school becomes a low priority. 

“They’re in crisis mode,” she said.

A student’s perspective

Sonia Tumkur is a first-year journalism student at Ryerson University. Since the beginning of the pandemic, which started in her senior year of high school, her and her family have dealt with slow internet speed. As her entire family transitioned their lives online, she said their wi-fi became increasingly unreliable.

Tumkur said she is “constantly panicking” about her wi-fi cutting out during online tests and lectures. 

Sometimes, she gets kicked out of online lectures when her wi-fi disconnects. Other times, her connection is so slow that she can’t understand what her professors or classmates are saying. 

“It’s a frustrating feeling wanting to be engaged but then having that problem,” she said. “It makes you unmotivated to even show up to class.”

In January, the Ryerson Leadership Lab (RLL) published their “Mapping Toronto’s Digital Divide” report,  which examined internet speed, access, quality and affordability in Toronto. While only two per cent of Toronto residents who responded have no home internet, 38 per cent report download speeds below the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission’s (CRTC) national target of 50 megabits per second. For low-income households, the number jumps up to 52 per cent.

“It’s a frustrating feeling wanting to be engaged but then having that problem…It makes you unmotivated to even show up to class”

The Toronto Broadband Study, a similar report, was released in 2017. However according to Digital Divide author Sam Andrey, “[the Toronto Broadband Study] doesn’t have the survey data that we collected…which helps paint a really clear picture of Toronto.”

Andrey is also the director of policy and research for the RLL.

The RRL report dives into more nuanced issues around accessing the internet, including price and speed. 

Andrey said one of the most shocking things he learned over the course of his and his team’s research was the extent to which Toronto households experienced slow internet speed rates. 

“I had a sense that would be predominantly in rural or remote Canada where they can’t even access the infrastructure, but here in Toronto, access to the infrastructure is not really the problem.”

According to a CRTC survey of low-income Canadian households, cost was the primary reason households did not have a home internet connection.

The RLL report states that 34 per cent of households worry about paying their bills. This concern was the greatest among low-income, newcomer, single parent, Latin American, South Asian, Black and Southeast Asian residents. 

The report also highlighted the importance of internet and device access as the city moves forward in pandemic recovery and “the need to continue scaling programs to close the remaining gaps in internet and device access.”

“The way we work, the way we communicate with our families has fundamentally changed and are going to become more permanent,” says Andrey. 

Providing wi-fi to students

When the pandemic first hit, the Toronto school board lent out 60,000 devices and wi-fi hotspots to students in need. Having a device and internet access is essential to learning, according to Matho.

“That’s the only way our students are going to be able to access the curriculum right now,” said Matho. “You really need it as a starting point. It’s like a pencil.” 

Listen: Sonam Matho talks about the need to provide students with devices.

However, Matho noted that the process of obtaining these devices wasn’t perfect and came with its own barriers. She said parents were sent an email informing them of how they could get a device if their children needed one. 

“We’re making assumptions that everyone has email, that parents are checking it, that they understand the language.”

The Toronto Public Library started a similar initiative handing out devices and hotspots in May. In partnership with community agencies, they’ve provided over 650 devices and wi-fi hotspots to individuals in need. 

Aly Velji, manager of social development at the Toronto Public Library, said these interventions are making a difference, especially for low-income families.

“The one thing that personally keeps me going is the impact on the clients,” said Velji. “Just to hear…a mom with kids at home saying that ‘my kid can finally attend school.’”

With files from David Jardine

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