On the morning of April Fool’s Day, Mark Burke, principal of Elizabeth School on the Elizabeth Métis Settlement, south of Cold Lake, put on a blond wig and pale green eye shadow.
Broadcasting live to the school’s students on Facebook, Burke introduced himself as substitute principal “Eliza Doolittle.”
“Let me first say that I am so honoured to take over for Mr. Burke, the most handsome principal,” he began.
Like lessons, assignments and storytime, morning announcements have migrated online, with thousands of Alberta students, teachers and parents using apps, social media and video conferencing tools to communicate daily during the COVID-19 pandemic.
These digital tools are only part of the remote learning picture, especially in rural communities with slow internet and scores of students who lack access to computers or internet at all.
Many rural schools now have rows of bins set up for students to drop off and pick up stacks of paper worksheets and assignments.
Recent cuts to education funding have prompted some districts to temporarily lay off bus drivers and educational assistants, many of whom had been helping to transport lessons and homework between schools and students’ homes.
Nancy Spencer-Poitras, superintendent of Northland School Division — a northern Alberta district that spans the geographic size of Germany — said this task will soon fall to other district staff members, “because of the funding cutbacks.”
Solving access issues
Rural educators and school officials say access to the internet and devices like laptops, computers and phones is not universal in their areas.
Approximately 300 students in the High Prairie School Division do not have devices in their homes and about 140 don’t have an internet connection at home. The northern Alberta district serves about 3,100 students in total.
Students without computers are receiving Chromebooks and students without internet access will use USB sticks and print materials, said communications officer Kyle Nichols.
“A lot of kids do not even have a phone to use,” said Christina Dafoe, a Grade 5 teacher at Four Winds Public School in the town of Morinville, north of Edmonton.
“Or they have a pay-as-you-go phone for the whole family, and that’s not something that’s feasible for what we’re structuring as online learning.”
When she’s not answering hundreds of emails or running a live lesson, Dafoe guides some of her students through textbook material over the phone.
Educators are even turning to grandparents to help secure internet access for their students.
Some grandparents, Burke said, have unlimited data on their phones but no internet at home, “so we walk them through how to make the phone into a hotspot so they can use a Chromebook to access the internet that way.”
Jami Antle, a Grade 2 teacher at Anzac Community School, south of Fort McMurray, said she sent home devices with about half of her 18 students. Two of her students do not have internet access at home but can use it at a neighbour’s house.
Antle has been sending home card-based learning games, texting and calling her students who don’t have reliable internet.
“I still want to make learning fun for them as well,” she said.
Another barrier: internet speed
Of the 49 families who send their children to Elizabeth School, about 10 lack internet access, with five or six needing devices at home.
Access to high-speed internet is a more widespread problem in the community, Burke said.
“So many people are on it at the same time; there’s just not enough bandwidth for it to be robust enough to support a lot of the learning.”
The school has advised families to turn off other devices when students are attending virtual lessons.
Once better weather returns, staff plan to invite families to sit outside Elizabeth School in their vehicles so students can access faster Wi-Fi that way.
Every student ‘will continue to learn,’ education ministry says
Colin Aitchison, press secretary for the office of the ministry of education, said in an emailed statement that teachers will work with students and parents to create delivery methods that work for all students.
“We expect that every student, regardless of their ability to access the internet, their geography, or their socioeconomic status, will continue to learn while in-school classes are cancelled,” he said in the statement.
To achieve that goal, teachers are working together and sharing resources, said Michael Maciach, a pedagogical supervisor and tech lead for Northland School Division.
“It’s been a steep learning curve for some people but we’re all working together hard to make sure that our kids get what they need.”