Unreliable internet means First Nation students at this school will learn from workbooks

Elementary students in Chippewas of the Thames First Nation will learn from workbooks instead of online, because internet access in the community is unreliable and expensive.

There will be opportunities for one-on-one sessions with a teacher, says principal

Vick Slay, the principal at Antler River Elementary School, said teachers will host one-on-one sessions with students, at the school, to help guide their education. (Liny Lamberink/CBC London)

As the province grapples with a safe return to class this fall, an Indigenous community in southwestern Ontario is dealing with an added complication.

School officials at Antler River Elementary School in Chippewas of the Thames First Nation have decided to wait until February to start in person classes again. Internet access is unreliable and expensive, so students will learn from workbooks instead of online, highlighting a challenge faced by rural communities across the country.

"It's a bit overwhelming," said parent Kristen Hendrick. 

Kristen Hendrick's son is going into Grade 7 at Antler River Elementary School. She said workbook learning will be a challenge. (Submitted by Kristen Hendrick)

Her son, Cain Elijah, is heading into Grade 7 at Antler River this year. She already knows that learning from a workbook at home will be a challenge. On one hand, she worries about being able to support him with unfamiliar material, balancing it with her seven-day work week and whether the papers will get lost.

On the other hand, her internet bill last month was $200. 

"We don't get the unlimited package for $60 like [London] does. Ours is limited."

Workbooks get strong support

Vick Slay, the principal of Antler River, said a summer survey of parents revealed that 90 per cent wanted students to learn from workbooks. Many found online learning to be a problem back in mid-March, when students were suddenly sent home with Chromebooks, he said.

"It was very frustrating for them," he explained. "Some people it worked for, some people it didn't work for." 

Slay said parents will be responsible for picking up the workbook packages. In cases where that isn't an option, a support worker will arrange a drop-off. 

Teachers will also be available for one-on-one sessions with students at the school, he explained. 

"We figured that's the closest we can get to a normal school setting." 

It's a vastly different approach to the school year compared to most of Ontario, where parents and students at publicly-funded schools have the choice of attending classes or learning online. 

"We felt we didn't need to rush," said Slay. "Let's see how the fall plays out, let's see how the other schools do with COVID-19, see if we have any cases." 

Another factor, said Slay, is that teachers at Antler River come from outside the community and have kids that will be attending schools in the Thames Valley District School Board. 

"So we want to play it safe."

Students at Antler River will start the school year Sept. 8. According to a statement from the administration of the neighbouring Oneida Nation of the Thames, students at the community's Standing Stone School will begin learning online with Chromebooks on Sept. 14.

Chief Jacqueline French from Chippewas of the Thames First Nation. (Submitted by Jacqueline French)

Attracting government funding

The community's chief, Jacqueline French, is among those impacted by a lack of reliable Internet connection. 

"I've been working from home and I struggle using Zoom at times to do meetings because it gets really glitchy, it cuts out, it sounds really robotic at times," she explained. 

French said the nation would have to go into debt in order to build infrastructure, like a fibre-optic cable network, to improve internet connectivity. She raised the matter with the province, and is hoping to attract government funding.

"I just had a call with some representatives from the Ontario government and we're going to work together to see how we can support that," she said. 

"We've always known the access to good quality internet has been an issue, but now with the pandemic, the conversation has increased in terms of urgency."

A temporary emergency fibre optic cable in a remote area of the Northwest Territories. (Kate Kyle/CBC)

It's not just the elementary students she's thinking about. 

French said secondary and post-secondary students who are learning online this fall will also need reliable internet, and it would be welcome news for business owners and residents in the community too.