'Culture of secrecy' prevents some students from accessing remote learning
New Brunswick education officials don't know how many students have no access to computers or the internet
New Brunswick's minister of education says privacy legislation means some children could fall through the cracks when it comes to online learning
Dominic Cardy said the province does not have an accurate count of how many students don't have access to computers or the internet. The province needs that number to make sure all students can continue learning while schools are closed because of COVID-19.
But Cardy said if a parent doesn't respond to voluntary surveys by the districts, there's no way for educators to know if that family needs help to get connected.
"If another department knew, for whatever reason, that there was a technology gap in a home because they'd been working with that family … we would not be allowed to get access to that information."
Cardy said communication between departments, especially between social development and education, is hindered by strict privacy rules.
"It's not just the letter of the law," he said. "It's a broader culture of secrecy that's entirely in government where everyone ends up feeling they shouldn't share information with anyone which I would argue is a bad thing."
Cardy believes it's time to look at how the government treats privacy in the digital age.
"It's a little bit of a self-imposed problem but we're going to have a public conversation about how to fix it," he said.
Sometimes it's very hard to get the parents engaged in any way at all in their child's education.- Dominic Cardy, education minister
Privacy commissioner and ombud Charles Murray said the problem sometimes lies with different departments interpreting the Privacy Act differently — not with the act itself.
"I think that the values of privacy have made their way into the culture of government in a very uneven way," he said.
"People are now recognizing the importance of protecting privacy. And like some lessons in government they overlearn parts of it and they misunderstand parts of it."
Cardy said the province should not give up on the people who haven't responded just because they can't be reached.
"I can certainly understand how some people, in the absence of context or explanation of how that will benefit them, would say, 'I'd really rather not tell the government those things,'" he said.
The province has estimated that 10 per cent of the student population has a technology need that's barring them from participating in online learning. Cardy said the province plans to announce help for this group next week.
'Putting the choice on the parent'
Cardy said the number of students falling through the cracks is most likely small, but they shouldn't be ignored.
Murray said when the number is quite small, it's possible for the school districts to reach out to families with an offer to help.
"Contact them and say, 'We're slotting you into this group and this is a program we're offering to people,'" he said.
"That's putting the choice on the parents without going in and trying to take information … that they don't want to give you."
But Cardy said he worries for neglected children, whose parents simply don't bother with school communication.
"Sometimes it's very hard to get the parents engaged in any way at all in their child's education," he said.
Cardy said the structure that protects children of "disconnected" parents is lost when schools are closed, so he's trying to find a way to extend that structure into the children's homes directly.
"When we're talking about this access to technology…it'll be even more important to make sure that we have the ability to reach out to those kids during the pandemic," he said.
"Otherwise we're going to be opening up an even bigger learning gap between kids who come from deprived areas and deprived homes."
The numbers we know
In a recent interview, superintendent of Anglophone West School District David McTimoney said about 8,600 families responded to a survey and about 200 of them didn't have internet access. He said teachers would be interacting with those students by phone. Enrollment in this district is approximately 22,000.
Anglophone North School District spokesperson Meredith Caissie said the district surveyed parents over the phone.
The district has a little over 7,000 children, and 569 require devices, she said. Some of them need access to the internet, some need access to devices, and some of them need both.
Caissie said the district doesn't have phone numbers for the people it hasn't been able to reach.
Meanwhile the Francophone Sud School District will be distributing laptops, tablets and USB keys to students in early May, said spokesperson Ghislaine Arsenault.
She said parents and students were surveyed in early April. Enrollment at this district is around 15,000.
Students in Kindergarten to Grade 3 will be receiving tablets, and laptops will be distributed to students in Grades 4 to 12, Arsenault said.
"For students who do not have access to the Internet, USB memory sticks with learning exercises will be distributed to them," she said.
While 97 per cent of students were successfully reached to complete the survey over the phone, she said the district is still trying to contact the remaining three per cent.
She said 117 students, representing 84 families, don't have internet access at home.
"We are working on a plan with the Ministry of Education to offer them a connection," she said.
There are 165 students who don't have computers at home and will be getting tablets and iPads. Students who have smartphones will receive a tool to help them learn on that device.
The remaining anglophone and francophone school districts did not respond to CBC's questions by deadline.