Slow start to remote schooling for Saskatchewan families without internet

The province’s remote learning framework has been in place since March 30. While some parents are already developing routines around online learning, many parents who don’t have the internet have yet to get started.

Ministry only sent out guidelines on delivering physical materials on Wednesday

Schools across Saskatchewan have been empty of students since the middle of March.

The school year keeps getting shorter for students who don't have adequate access to the internet, and some parents say the delay in delivering physical learning materials is hurting their child's education and future.

The province's remote learning framework has been in place since March 30. While some parents are already developing routines around online learning, many who don't have the internet have yet to get started. That's because the Ministry of Education only released its guidelines on safely distributing physical learning materials to divisions on Wednesday, more than a week after teachers returned to their duties.

Schools in the province have been shuttered since March 20 due to the pandemic, and the situation has been frustrating for Jennifer Nygaard. Her two daughters are in Grade 10 and Grade 2 in the Saskatchewan Rivers Public School Division, and both have been missing classes because it's been almost impossible to get internet access at her rural home. 

"As a parent, I feel very helpless in this situation, because I can't do anything to support my kids' learning requirements," she said. "Both of them want to be learning. Both of them love school."

Nygaard's elder daughter Shelby Dunn says the situation has been "really hard" as many people are treating access to technology as a given.

"It seems really unfair," Dunn said. "Everything is online right now, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. People are relying more heavily on things being done online, and it seems really like no one is thinking about the people and families who don't have access to that."

Nygaard said the plan for physical learning materials should already be in place to ensure those without access to technology or internet aren't left behind. 

"There's just nothing available for us at all," she said. 

It's not just rural students who have been waiting for physical learning packages.

Earlier on Wednesday, the Saskatoon Public School Division, the province's largest, said in a statement it was "holding off" on sending out physical learning materials to parents as it had not received confirmation it was safe to do so from the Saskatchewan Health Authority.

Carla Beck is the MLA for Regina Lakeview and education critic with Saskatchewan's Opposition NDP. She says the government was warned by the Opposition and teachers there would be students who struggle with the remote learning framework due to a lack of Internet access. (Matt Howard/CBC)

Later the division indicated it had received the guidelines late Wednesday afternoon and had not yet had a chance to discuss them.

But for some school divisions, physical learning packages have already started to be distributed. Robert Bratvold, the Saskatchewan Rivers' director of education, said in a text message his division worked with a local representative from the Saskatchewan Health Authority to develop protocols to safely distribute the packages.

Derrick Kunz, a spokesperson with the Greater Saskatoon Catholic Schools, said it also received the document about physical materials on Wednesday and that it answered numerous questions the division had as it was developing its own protocols. 

CBC Saskatoon requested an interview with someone from the Ministry of Education to discuss its plans to distribute physical learning packages, but a statement was provided instead. 

In the statement, the Ministry of Education said the guidelines distributed Wednesday were to help clear up confusion "within the education community," and said it didn't know which divisions had already started handing out packages.

"As divisions are still in the process of rolling out these instructional opportunities, the Response Planning Team (RPT) has not yet canvassed all divisions on whether or not they have started to hand out physical learning packages to students," the statement said. "This topic may be discussed in future discussions between the RPT and the divisions."

When asked if the division was concerned that some divisions have not been distributing learning materials, the ministry said it appreciates "the efforts of all divisions to ensure the safety of their students and staff is maintained, and that extreme caution is being exercised in order to minimize the risk of COVID-19 transmission within their community." 

The statement did not provide any insight into whether the ministry sees students' lack of access to these materials as a concern. The statement also didn't address a question about whether the Ministry of Education is concerned about divisions' disparate approaches.

NDP education critic Carla Beck said the Government of Saskatchewan was told both by the Opposition and teachers that a lack of internet access would be a problem for many families and should have done a better job of preparing these materials. 

"Certainly, we would have hoped to see those measures rolled out sooner," she said.

"The delay, I give the benefit of the doubt that it was not intentional, but the reality is that rolling out those measures later for those students who are already disadvantaged means they are that much further behind in their learning, and that is deeply concerning." 

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