Why home internet is more critical than ever for students who can’t go to class

 

Above: Medicine Hat Public School Division social worker Nick Paquin and his wife, Ashley, a kindergarten teacher, rely on the internet to keep them reliably connected with students while safely social distancing. Seeing their teacher in a dinosaur costume is a bonus for kids who log into Ashley’s online classroom. PHOTO BY DELMAR PHOTOGRAPHY

At least once a day for the past few months, Nick Paquin has found himself marveling at the power of human connection amid a pandemic that has forced us all physically apart.

Today is no exception. Paquin, a social worker with Alberta’s Medicine Hat Public School Division (MHPSD) is mid-sentence when he stops, his attention temporarily distracted by the peals of laughter coming from his living room. His wife, Ashley Paquin, a kindergarten teacher in the division, is working with colleagues to lead an online sing-along limbo challenge with a screen full of giddy kids.

It’s clear from the joyful sounds that everyone is having a great time though they are spread out in homes across the city.

“It’s amazing, really,” says Paquin, turning his attention back to the phone call. “Here is my wife, the school music teacher and phys ed teacher on the same Google Meet-up. They’re all working together with the intent to enrich the educational experience for our little ones during this pandemic. And this is all happening because our families have access to an internet connection."

Improved graduation rates

Digital connection with students and families has long been a priority for Medicine Hat. These days, access to the internet at home is more than a luxury; it’s critical to a child’s future success. In Canada, about half of low-income families lack affordable access to the internet, which puts kids at risk of falling behind in school. Independent studies indicate students are six to eight percent more likely to graduate if they have internet connectivity at home.

Enabling students to better reach their full potential is why TELUS introduced a program in 2016 designed to connect families in need. Today, TELUS Internet for Good offers more than 200,000 families across B.C. and Alberta access to subsidized high-speed internet, a low-cost refurbished laptop and digital literacy training tools. The program has since grown across the country with TELUS joining in a federal government initiative to enable hundreds of thousands more Canadians to receive low-cost internet at home.

TELUS Internet for Good for Students expands the availability of the program, enabling school boards, schools and teachers to reach students in need. Previously, eligibility for the program was focused on families that were receiving the maximum Child Care Benefit from the federal government.

School Board partners, meanwhile, use their direct community knowledge and professional expertise to identify individual students in need. Families also have access to free educational activities through TELUS Wise and the ‘Learn, Do and Share’ educational hub through a partnership between TELUS and Microsoft.

Learning at home

Medicine Hat was among the first divisions to participate in the program.

For Mark Davidson, superintendent of MHPSD, it was an easy decision.

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Having regular access to the internet is a strong equalizer among students, regardless of their socioeconomic status, says Mark Davidson, Medicine Hat division superintendent. PHOTO BY DELMAR PHOTOGRAPHY

Davidson remembers the challenging early days of March, when the Alberta government declared a state of emergency. Almost overnight, the division was responsible for ensuring all 7,500 students in 17 schools had what they needed to learn from home.

“It is a different game than what we initially signed up for as educators, but we’ve managed to figure it out,” he says.

Working to identify students facing a technical disadvantage at home fast became a priority. Division administrators turned to their inventory of tablets and sent 3,000 out to families in need -- some had no computers, others had a single laptop for three children.

The plan only worked, however, if kids had home internet access. For dozens of students, that wasn’t the case. Financial struggles, compounded by hardships as a result of coronavirus containment measures, have left many families across the region struggling just to put food on the table. 

It’s why school administrators jumped to partner with TELUS. Statistically, having regular access to the internet is a strong equalizer among students, regardless of their socioeconomic status. 

“We know that students who have access to teaching materials on their own time have an advantage. They can fill in background information and gain insight on materials teachers provide them with during the school day,” says Davidson. “Online, they can fan out and explore all the resources that are available on whatever subject they are exploring.” 

To date, 72 Medicine Hat students have been enrolled into the program, with the school division covering the reduced Internet for Good cost, while TELUS is subsidizing the remaining hardware, installation and operating costs for at least two years.

“It’s a very small expense on balance when you consider the benefits it gives to students. We see it as a powerful tool to equalize opportunities for kids,” says Davidson.

Community building

Of course, home internet connectivity is not just about keeping up with classroom lessons.

It’s also an important tool in maintaining a sense of school community and personal connection.

For social worker Nick Paquin, whose job it is to ensure division students receive the social and emotional support they need to thrive, one-on-one time is critical to the continued well-being of the children he supports.

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Nick and Ashley Paquin in Medicine Hat. PHOTO BY DELMAR PHOTOGRAPHY

“The more healthy adults a child is connected to, the better chance of a positive outcome as they grow and develop through life,” he says.

When the threat of COVID put an end to in-person sessions, Paquin was initially concerned about what the future held for vulnerable kids in the division. But he’s been pleasantly surprised by the positive experiences virtual connection has made possible. 

“A phone line is great, but it’s so much more effective if I can see a child on the screen, and that child can see me. I can see their facial expressions, what their posture looks like -- they are able to show me beyond just their words how they are doing, and I can tell if they are really okay, or if they need more from me,” he says. 

Paquin, again, pauses as he reflects on how much the world has changed in recent months, and what it means to be connected. 

“It’s through the power of the internet that we can do everything we’ve done. We can have meaningful digital face-to-face interactions, and, as closely as possible, replicate the classroom experience for our students at home,” he says. “It’s a good reminder that we really are in this together.”