Manitoba school divisions working to provide free Wi-Fi as pandemic leaves students learning at home

Seven Oaks School Division is paying to provide Wi-Fi connections in some students' homes, one month after in-school classes in Manitoba were cancelled because of COVID-19.

Seven Oaks School Division spending $40K on Wi-Fi to make sure all students can keep up with remote learning

Nevaeha Pelletier-Charlette, 9, is learning online thanks to the Seven Oaks School Division, which is paying for Wi-Fi service in her family's home. (Submitted by Lucie Pelletier)

School divisions across Manitoba have started paying for Wi-Fi connections in some students' homes to help them keep up with their classmates, one month after in-school classes were cancelled because of COVID-19.

Lucie Pelletier, who has five children, got set up with an internet connection at her home on Tuesday. She says it will make a huge difference for her family.

"They get to keep in touch with their teachers via email now.… They adore their teachers very, very much. This helps their stress levels. They miss school," said Pelletier, whose children range in ages from four to 17.

"They need to keep succeeding with their schoolwork."

Seven Oaks School Division in Winnipeg plans to spend $40,000 to install internet in about 200 homes. In most cases, the families can't afford Wi-Fi access.

"The cost of a single kid falling behind, and needing full-time one-on-one assistance, is more than that," said Seven Oaks superintendent Brian O'Leary.

To pay for the routers and connection, the division is using funds that would normally be spent on things that are now on hold, like extracurricular activities or field trips.

"We're taking some of what would've been spent on these kids and spending in a different way," he said.

When schools were closed last month, Seven Oaks distributed 1,300 Chromebooks that would have been sitting unused in the schools.

But for a number of students who don't have Wi-Fi, learning was still hampered by a lack of access to video-chat meetings with their classes or online resources, O'Leary said. 

"If you're the one kid that can't participate in the class meeting ... the worry is those kids will slip further behind and have a harder time catching up," he said. 

"So anything we can do to kind of keep kids on pace with their peers, making progress, and socially engaged with their teachers and peers is just the the right thing to do."

O'Leary said some families have been brought to tears when they found out they were getting Wi-Fi connections.

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Bell MTS said it launched its remote access internet plan this week to help school divisions across Manitoba provide online learning.

The company is in touch with several school divisions about setting students up with Wi-Fi access.

"The divisions will identify the eligible students and provide them with tablets or laptops, and Bell MTS will look after installing internet access at their home," spokesperson Morgan Shipley said in an email to CBC News.

The month-to-month service will be available until schools can reopen across Manitoba, she said.


Marina von Stackelberg is a senior reporter at CBC's Parliamentary Bureau in Ottawa. She previously worked as a reporter and host in Winnipeg, with earlier stints in Halifax and Sudbury. Her stories regularly appear across the country on CBC Radio and CBC News Network. Connect with her by email at or on social media @CBCMarina.