By Mike Baker
When students from across Haliburton County returned to the classroom late last month, teen Finn Tentrees breathed a huge sigh of relief.
It has been a rough year for the Haliburton Highlands Secondary School [HHSS] victory lapper. Following the closure of all Ontario schools last March, and the subsequent transition to online learning, Finn was one of the many youth inexplicably left behind due to issues surrounding internet connectivity.
Speaking to the Echo recently, Tentrees said he was forced to put his life on hold after struggling to adapt to a system he feels inadvertently isolated a portion of the province’s student body. While he had plans to attend university following his Grade 12 year, an inability to access online study plans and live-streamed classes meant Finn fell behind in a couple of key subjects.
“The end of last year, honestly, was a bit of a nightmare,” Tentrees admitted. “As we moved into online learning, most of my classes involved some element of livestreaming. Within a week I realized I wouldn’t be able to do anything, as I couldn’t load into the streams. I would get messages from friends telling me I’m dropping out of the live stream, but there was nothing I could do about it.”
Like many people in Haliburton County, Tentrees lives rurally. He shares a home with his mom and little brother on Gelert Road, between Minden and Kinmount. Internet speed in that area is a huge problem, with Finn saying he sometimes has trouble completing even a simple Google search.
Services such as Netflix and YouTube are totally inaccessible, Finn says.
The other caveat is the internet package the family relies on includes a maximum monthly data allowance of 100 gigabytes. With two students attempting to learn from home and a mom, who works in web design, trying to keep up with her workload, Finn says they regularly exceed that allowance. The family’s most recent internet bill included a $200 data overage fee.
Reflecting back on those particularly difficult weeks last year, Tentrees said his family had to come up with a schedule for when each of them could access the internet. When his time came around, although he tried, Finn admitted he didn’t really know where to turn.
“When I was on [during the day], I’d spend an hour trying to get into the class. Then late at night, I’d lose track of time trying to figure out what I had missed from the live stream. Before I knew it, I’d wasted three hours doing nothing, because I really had no idea what I was doing,” Tentrees said. “I felt kind of horrible about myself. After a few weeks in, I did kind of give up. I just couldn’t do it anymore.”
Most disappointing for Finn was missing out on a Grade 12 chemistry class – a big subject for a student hoping to study cognitive science at university. While his teacher offered support and guidance, Finn decided instead to forego the class, push off going to university and return to HHSS for an additional year.
“The reason I went for the victory lap is because I didn’t learn anything from my chemistry class. I wasn’t able to do the labs I was interested in doing – the online aspect of the class was wasted on me,” Finn said. “Hopefully, with school back, I’ll be able to learn something this time around.”
Tentrees will begin his chemistry class in April.
Finn’s story is just one of dozens across Haliburton County, says Marg Cox, executive director of Point in Time.
When Cox started to hear about some of the challenges rural students were facing as they tried to keep up with their studies in an online format, she knew that something needed to be done. She immediately went to work establishing a task force of sorts, committed to improving internet connectivity across Haliburton County.
“This is a very real issue in our community. Unfortunately, some of our students are being left very far behind simply because they don’t have access to reliable internet at their home,” Cox said.
She estimated there are around 150 students across the county who require access to better internet. With that in mind, the group has started raising money to help pay for a “short-term solution” to the problem.
That solution involves the purchase and distribution of cell phones to students in need. The phones, provided by Rogers, will come equipped with 50 gigabytes of data – allowing students to hotspot internet from their phones. As of press time, the organization has raised $95,574 and has an end goal of $180,000. Cox says the committee has, thus far, ordered 90 devices from Rogers, with 15 of them already having been given to youth deemed to be most in need.
Even though schools across the county have returned to the classroom, Cox believes it’s important to prepare for the worst in the event another closure occurs in the future.
While this issue has impacted families with poor connectivity the most, even those who thought their internet service was good have faced issues. Grade 12 student Megan Klose was forced to drive over to HHSS during last year’s lockdown and sit in her car in the school’s parking lot so that she could access the facility’s WiFi and tune into her live-streamed classes. She estimates she made that trip at least 20 times.
While driving over to the school may seem extreme to some, Klose felt she had no other option.
“With the 22-day octomester we did, missing one day was just crazy. Missing one day’s worth of classes was the equivalent to missing a week of school,” Klose said.
She admitted many of her friends missed class for reasons outside of their control.
“Missing class was inevitable for people who don’t have access to internet. I have a friend that, when it snows, doesn’t have access at all. So on a bad weather day, she would be missing a week’s worth of classes. Online learning is not doable for a lot of people,” Klose stated.
In order to finish her Grade 11 year, Klose temporarily moved to Kingston to live with her older sister, who had access to quality internet. Now, she’s back in Haliburton to complete her Grade 12 year inside the classroom.
Dr. Michael MacKenzie, a professor at Montreal’s McGill University, was born and raised in Haliburton. When he heard about Cox’s initiative, he jumped at the chance to get involved.
“A big part of my work at McGill looks at inequalities and opportunities for younger people and their families, and this just stood out for me. We have lots of families in the county with varying levels of internet access,” MacKenzie said. “The promise of the internet is it provides opportunities to kids who otherwise wouldn’t have access to them. If we have a service like that that is open to some but not others… it doesn’t eliminate disparities, instead it becomes part of deepening and solidifying those divides.”
MacKenzie went as far to say that access to reliable internet could be seen as a human rights issue in today’s day.
“This isn’t something that’s just nice to get for people in rural and remote areas. This is a critical part of life. The children of this county are being locked out of opportunities to improve their life,” MacKenzie said.
While he’s a fan of Cox’s short-term solution of supplying cell phones with data plans to those in desperate need, MacKenzie said longer-term solutions are required. The installation of fibre optic lines and construction of signal towers would be an expensive endeavour, one that would require significant investment from both the provincial and federal governments. He believes there may be opportunities too, to look to emerging technologies such as lower orbit satellites to alleviate the issue.
“I think we need to accept that a one-size fits all solution probably isn’t going to work here. I hope the feds and the province come to the table with resources to get a mix of solutions that work and help to make internet connectivity a possibility for all residents of Haliburton County,” MacKenzie said.