Ottawa

Rural families given little choice when it comes to schooling, parents say

Poor internet, inadequate funding forcing some rural families into a decision

Posted: September 05, 2020

Some parents in rural eastern Ontario are finding themselves with no other option than to send their kids back to school amid the COVID-19 pandemic. (Francis Ferland/CBC)

Some parents in rural eastern Ontario say they're being forced to send their kids back to school this fall because online learning simply isn't an option due to where they live.

Jennifer Britton, a mother of three living in Kinburn, on Ottawa's rural western edge, said the family's home internet isn't reliable enough for remote learning.

"We tried online learning [last spring] and we were given as much support as the school could provide," Britton, whose children attend Ottawa-Carleton District School Board (OCDSB) schools, told CBC Radio's All In A Day

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When the pandemic shuttered classrooms in mid-March and children began learning from home, the OCDSB offered families including Britton's laptops and internet hotspots.

"But unfortunately in areas like mine, which is considered an internet dead zone, you can have all the hotspots in the world and it won't work because [the problem] is the cell signal. So if we don't have that then it's just not effective." 

Britton said her children quickly became frustrated with the poor connectivity and lost patience with online learning.

In many rural areas, home internet can be unreliable for young learners, not to mention costly. (Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images)

Last month, CBC Ottawa reported a network of municipalities in eastern Ontario is calling for $1.5 billion to finance something called the Gig Project, which aims to bring high-speed internet to underserved areas in the region.

Britton has lived in rural areas of New Brunswick, Quebec and Nova Scotia, but said for her family, poor connectivity has never been the issue it is in this region. Nor has it ever been so costly — Britton, whose husband works from home, said even with the poor service the family's monthly internet bill is about $800.

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"In 2020, we should not be struggling to have internet access in the nation's capital," she said.

'Short end of the stick'

Coral Sproule, a farmer and mother of two in Tay Valley Township, just north of Perth, Ont., agreed that living in a rural area makes remote learning unviable.

"For instance, last week we were without phone or internet for five days after a thunderstorm," Sproule told All In A Day. 

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What are parents in rural areas concerned about as they prepare to send their kids back to school in a few days?  10:52

Last month, the Ford government announced school boards will have access to reserve funds in order to reduce elementary class sizes and increase physical distancing measures, however Sproule, whose children attend schools in the Upper Canada District School Board (UCDSB), learned that was not the case in her district.

Sproule said she was told by the board that there are no reserve funds available, a result of several years of cutbacks and low enrolment due to the area's low population density.

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Sproule has also decided to drive her kids to and from school each day this fall rather than send them on the school bus, where she fears children won't observe proper distancing.

She said she feels families in her district have been dealt the "short end of the stick."

"If we don't have funding for more virtual learning support, we can't have a safe option for everyone," Sproule said.  

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Sara Jabakhanji
Digital Journalist

Sara Jabakhanji is a Toronto-based digital reporter with the CBC and graduate of Ryerson's School of Journalism. Sara has chased stories for CBC News across the province in Toronto, Ottawa and London. You can reach her at: sara.jabakhanji@cbc.ca