Province buys internet-ready iPads, laptops to support students learning at home
Education Minister Dominic Cardy says $860,000 purchase will 'help level the playing field'
The New Brunswick government will soon be handing out internet-ready devices to hundreds of families to help them adapt to online learning made necessary by COVID-19.
The province has bought and will distribute 1,000 iPad tablets with data plans, 500 laptop computers and 300 mobile internet hubs so that children can get access to materials posted online.
The total cost is $860,000, which comes from the Department of Education's existing budget. Money saved on costs, such as gas for school buses, was redirected to the devices, Education Minister Dominic Cardy said.
"This investment will help us level the playing field and ensure students have more equitable access to home learning options," Cardy said, cautioning that there is "no perfect solution" to the technological barriers some families face.
The government announced the closure of schools March 13 to reduce the risk of spread of the coronavirus, and Cardy confirmed again Wednesday that there is no plan to reopen them by the end of the current school year in June.
Since the closure, students have been doing varying levels of school work sent home by their teachers.
Cardy said the devices are intended mainly to help students when the new school year begins in the fall. It's still not clear to what extent students will be back in schools and whether that will be combined with continuing home-based learning.
Schools may open and close, and teachers may have to "flip back and forth" between in-person and online teaching, depending on whether there is a second wave of the virus, the minister said.
If we still end up with problems at the end of this we will work to find solutions.- Dominic Cardy, education minister
Teachers will get training to do more online teaching by fall, something Cardy said will help the New Brunswick education system advance even after the COVID-19 crisis has passed.
He said the number of devices the province bought was based on estimates of student needs from the seven school districts. Schools will co-ordinate distribution of the devices, which will be on loan to students.
Cardy said he can't be sure that the estimates, based on surveys of families, were accurate and if more devices are needed, the province will get them.
"If we still end up with problems at the end of this we will work to find solutions."
He acknowledged that the devices may not be enough for families in areas with poor cellular reception or slow internet connections.
"It was beyond the powers of my department to be able to put up cell towers or develop new internet access points in the space of the last few weeks," he said. "We're doing the best with what we have."
Equal access a long-standing objective
Cardy said the government would contact telecommunications companies to ask them "to ensure that we have equal and universal access across this province."
That's been a long-standing political objective of several provincial governments.
In 2008, the Liberal government of premier Shawn Graham promised to connect the 10 per cent of New Brunswickers who did not have high-speed internet at the time.
They gave Woodstock-based Xplornet $13 million, plus a $10 million loan guarantee, to develop a service that combined new cell towers and satellite-based connections.
But many New Brunswickers were still complaining about poor service almost a decade later. A provincial cabinet minister said at the time that the explosion of streaming services had overwhelmed the infrastructure put in place in 2008.
National goal is 95% with high-speed by 2026
In 2016 the CRTC set a target of 2021 for 90 per cent of Canadian households and businesses to have internet speeds of 50 megabits per second, with an unlimited-data option in their plans.
But in rural and remote areas, it's often too expensive for telecom companies to lay expensive fibre lines for a relatively small number of unprofitable customers.
The federal government has promised to increase high-speed broadband coverage in Canada to 95 per cent of households by 2026 and to all of them by 2030. It's now asking providers to help accelerate those plans.
The current CRTC estimate is that 40 per cent of households in rural areas nationwide have access to high-speed broadband.