Students must not be left behind

The image of an educator and student needing to teach and learn from a car at a WiFi hotspot in the County does not sit well with me.

But that’s what the Klose family had to do when the pandemic closed Haliburton Highlands Secondary School in 2020. Like many County families, they don’t have the internet required to support online learning.

Point in Time, which has been looking into the issue, says it’s affecting approximately 150 students and youth in the County. Executive-director Marg Cox added they surveyed 59 local youth, and only 14 per cent said they had reliable internet and 54 per cent said they have less-than-unlimited data.

In the first instance, this is probably due to our poor connectivity and in the second it may be due to economic hardship. Some families can afford unlimited. Some cannot.

Point in Time is spearheading a campaign. Long-term, it’s about overcoming connectivity barriers. Short-term, it’s solutions for youth in urgent need, such as cellular data plans or hubs, increasing community access point alternatives, and meeting the transportation needs of those who cannot get to hotspots.

Cox brought her plea to County council. They suggested it was a Ministry of Education issue. However, Cox pointed out that they could not wait for the ministry to take action as it is not going to happen any time soon, if at all.

Council didn’t pass any specific motions but said they’d lobby upper levels of government and consider financial support in the 2021 budget.

Unfortunately, that really isn’t good enough. Students are locked out of schools now and for the immediate future. The County can lobby Laurie Scott and Jamie Schmale all they want but nothing is going to happen quickly. And the budget won’t be passed for another month or two.

Warden Liz Danielsen suggested they could dip into safe restart funding – and they should. While maybe this is not how the province would like the money to be spent, in this case it might be better to beg forgiveness than ask for permission.

If they cannot provide the dollars to help families with technology to get them connected, they could open their facilities as temporary hotspots. There is the newly-refurbished Minden recreation complex, upstairs at the Haliburton arena or the Keith Tallman Arena in Wilberforce. There is the Dorset Recreation Complex.

Someone would have to immediately jump in to finalize a list of needy families, and perhaps organize volunteer drivers to get them transported to those WiFi hotspots. There will be logistics around public health protocols too. The Trillium Lakelands District School Board could surely assist as it knows of bus drivers not working right now. Perhaps smaller school buses could be enlisted in the effort. There are resources in this community. They just have to be enabled.

While County council talks about lobbying upper levels of government, and perhaps putting money in the 2021 budget, we’ve already seen the Haliburton and District Lions Club jump in with $1,000 towards the cause. Once again, it looks like the community is having to bail out yet another need in our County.

We have heard so many press announcements, federally, provincially and municipally about the billions of dollars going into ensuring no one is left behind when it comes to connectivity – and yet – at least 150 school children here are being left behind. They need the help now – not in a month or two.

It’s not just time for the County to step up, either. Scott and Schmale should be embarrassed that constituents in the County have to drive to a high school parking lot in Haliburton, in winter, so they can teach and learn.

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