The Miserable Truth About Online School
It’s fine for kids who have high-speed internet, fancy laptops and tech-savvy adults around to help out. This is a story about everybody else
Rayman Miller lives in the northwest Toronto neighbourhood of Weston, in a tower of rental units off the 401. Since last March, Rayman, who is 21, his mom and his younger siblings have been home for most of the day every day in their three-bedroom apartment. Rayman shares a bedroom with his two brothers, who are 14 and 18. Before the pandemic, their mom, Kaleena, worked at the Wahlburgers at Pearson airport, and Rayman was about to start a job working with kids in an after-school program. Covid left them both unemployed. Rayman is studying at Humber College to be a paralegal and brings in a bit of money selling Amway products and nutritional supplements part time. (Even on the phone, his voice is warm and charming—you would place an order.) Rayman says, jokingly, that his other job is unpaid tutor. He spends his days bouncing between his own online courses and helping his brother Deshawn, who’s in Grade 9, and his sister, Shakera, who’s in Grade 7, with theirs.
Back in the fall, the Millers opted for full-time online learning because going to school in person felt too risky. In October, their neighbourhood had one of the highest Covid rates in the city, with positive tests at 10 per cent. The city’s overall rate at the time was just three per cent.
So far, remote learning has been glitchy. Rayman worries that the family’s spotty technology is interfering with his siblings’ education. Though the Toronto District School Board has outfitted the kids with devices, they don’t always work. Deshawn spends his school day in front of a TDSB-issued Chromebook. One time, the screen turned black and he had to drop it off at school for repairs, so he missed four days of classes. Another time, Shakera forgot the password for her loaner and waited three days to get it reset—more absents on her report card.
Rent is $1,500 a month. The family pays about $160 per month for high-speed internet bundled with TV—a big chunk of their limited income. Connectivity is an issue, too. These days, with so many people in the building working and schooling from home, their internet crashes regularly. Once, while Rayman was delivering a Zoom presentation for school, his screen froze in front of the whole class, and he had to ask his professor if he could do it another day, which was mortifying. He’s discovered that the best time to be online is after midnight, when people in the building are sleeping, not surfing. So in the deepest part of the night, Rayman sits in the living room, where the connection is strongest, finishing his school work. “These are some seriously tough times,” Rayman told me.
For a century, the promise of public school resided in the building itself—a physical location separate from the home where students can be accountable to a range of adults beyond their families, where they can be seen. In remote learning, there is no “there,” no physicality of buildings, or of bodies—no shoulder-to-shoulder. Public education is now at the mercy of technology. This new playing field is not just uneven but riddled with land mines, where a lack of access to devices, unaffordability and bad connectivity deepen the gap between the haves and the have-nots. This is what’s called the digital divide.
Since Covid hit, school boards throughout Ontario have scrambled to address this divide. The TDSB is the largest school board in the country, serving some 247,000 students. In the spring and fall, it put more than 50,000 devices in kids’ hands in a matter of months—a Herculean task. Since March, the Toronto District Catholic School Board, with 90,000 students, has distributed almost 17,000 devices. But hardware isn’t much use without connectivity, which costs money. Canadians pay some of the highest rates for internet in the OECD, leaving access beyond the grasp of many. Covid-19 has made concrete what we already vaguely knew: that in the contemporary hierarchy of needs, the internet is essential for physical survival and for human actualization. Without it, how can we have friends? How can we find a home? Apply for a job? Do a job? And now attend school. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights holds that elementary school is a human right. But the fibre that runs beneath our city is largely owned by telecoms; we pay handsomely to use their road, even if the road above it is public. Now that school and work and social connection are braided with technology—perhaps forever—is this the moment when we decide that connectivity is a right, too?
A great, uninvited social experiment is playing out across the city. In a fast and furious reaction to Covid-19, families have been thrown into a new and untested mode of education—and being. And many of these new remote learners are kids who were already at risk of falling behind and dropping out. Advantages at home—books, food, tech, parents with spare time—set up some students for success before they even start kindergarten, and kids without those cushions may start from behind, and stay there. Many affluent parents are also reeling from the sudden swerve to online learning, but they’re financially able to fortify their kids’ success with expensive devices and tutors and learning pods. For families with fewer resources, it’s been significantly harder, and the long-term effects are potentially devastating.
In the fall, 80,000 TDSB kids signed up for virtual school, and 90,000 high school students were learning remotely three-quarters of the time. By November, 25,000 students were enrolled in the Catholic board’s online school. Then, in January, with Covid rates spiking, schools shut across Ontario, and all Toronto kids became remote learners. Every stage of online learning has been a lesson in its limitations, with reports of kids missing out, falling behind and even vanishing altogether. If online learning continues, a generation of already vulnerable students may come out on the other side of Covid with an education deficit that they’ll wear the rest of their lives.
David Cameron, the TDSB’s senior manager of research and development, showed me a map of the city that indicated the neighbourhoods in Toronto with the highest percentage of low-income families: a jagged horseshoe shape extending from the northwest corner of the map in North York down to Regent Park in the south and up the northeast strip to Scarborough. In the centre of the city are the more affluent zones. When he laid a map of families that chose virtual school in the fall on top of low-income neighbourhoods, the horseshoes roughly lined up. “These are the neighbourhoods with more Covid cases and where parents work in service employment,” says Cameron.
Laurrette McLaren, a single mom in Scarborough with two teenage daughters, 13-year-old Irahs and 15-year-old Sage, opted to enrol her girls in virtual school in September because she was afraid of getting sick—or worse, giving the virus to her 75-year-old mother, who lives in the apartment next door. McLaren has metal rods in her back from an accident when she was 17, so she’s on a disability pension. Her occasional work at a catering company dried up when the pandemic cancelled events and parties, so she’s been at home to oversee the girls. Scarborough has been a Covid-19 hotspot since the beginning of the pandemic, and this fall, several schools shut down within days of each other due to high infection rates. For nearly a year, McLaren and her girls have been the model of Covid-19 prevention, rarely leaving the house except to buy absolute necessities.
When the pandemic struck, the family didn’t own a laptop. The girls borrowed their grandmother’s from next door and took turns throughout the school day. It was awkward: McLaren doesn’t have internet access at home—it’s too expensive—so they got the connection by moving close to the wall in the kitchen or living room to pick up Grandma’s Wi-Fi. When McLaren put in a request for devices to the TDSB, it took many calls and emails and the intervention of guidance counsellors at two schools before two iPads arrived, two and a half months later.
There have been problems. With iPads, you can log in to Google Classroom, but it’s impossible to open multiple screens at once, which is necessary to see a teacher and read or write simultaneously. At times, the connection drops out, and McLaren doesn’t know if it’s Brightspace—the TDSB’s learning platform—or the device itself. Getting support is near impossible. “If you try to call or send an email, there’s a message that basically says, ‘Don’t try to contact us. We’re having a rough time here.’ ”
McLaren is concerned about the sheer number of hours the girls spend on screens: they log on the moment they wake up, and log off just before they go to sleep. Typing full essays on an iPad is hard on hands and eyes, and agonizingly slow. The kids have headaches. Irahs complains of blurry vision. They are exhausted and socially isolated. Moorelands Camp, an organization that runs their after-school and summer programs, has promised to send them donated laptops. “Who knows the long-term effects of this year,” says McLaren.
For almost a year now, the TDSB has strained to keep every kid connected in the midst of a worldwide computer shortage. In October, the board was waiting on back orders of 800 iPads and 96 Chromebooks, while fielding about 100 requests for devices each day. By December, suppliers had caught up, deliveries were arriving from China, and the TDSB had met every request. Getting tech into homes in the fall begat another problem: thousands of devices had migrated from classrooms to remote students, so suddenly, kids in brick-and-mortar schools who needed devices for in-class learning didn’t have them. Peter Singh, the executive officer of IT services for the TDSB, says the TDSB is working to replace about 21,000 devices that were removed from classrooms. And then, as the Christmas holidays approached, the second wave hit and it became clear that schools wouldn’t reopen in January. Singh secured an extra $2.5 million from the province to purchase 9,300 new devices to cover the second half of the school year.
When the TDSB gets a request for tech, the order ends up at a makeshift distribution centre set up inside an administrative building with cardboard on the windows. To avoid break-ins, administrators keep the location secret. The IT team has more than 340 people, and every day, dozens of staffers gather in the building, socially distanced and masked, to configure new Chromebooks and iPads, adding software and tracking capacity.
While most people who receive loaners take care of their tech, there is some abuse of the system. Families might claim a device is lost, but the IT department can see that the student is still logging on. One device was returned smashed with something like a hammer—a bad day, or a bid for an upgrade? An iPad went missing, and tracking revealed it had gone down a garbage chute in a building; another device showed up in a pawnshop.
Sara Kydd is 15. She’s a Grade 10 student at Monarch Park Collegiate in the east end who is thinking about going into medicine, maybe to become a doctor or a medical researcher. She appears in an online video called “5 Ways to STEM in Quarantine,” sitting in her bedroom, smiling wide, braces flashing. Sara lives with her parents and two brothers in a three-bedroom apartment in Regent Park. Her father, Wesley, works in sanitation, and her mother, Shugri Farah, works part time at a group home in Oakville and is studying at George Brown to be a developmental service worker. Before Covid-19 hit, the family of five had been sharing an old laptop and a desktop computer without a camera or a mic—features that didn’t really matter a year ago. Suddenly, two aging devices weren’t enough to get three kids through school.
Sara’s younger brother, who’s in Grade 9, got a loaner Chromebook. He and Sara often negotiate for devices: Sara needs a computer with a microphone and a camera for drama class, and her mom’s laptop mic and camera don’t work well. The Chromebook’s mic and camera do, but her brother uses the Chromebook most days so… “It’s annoying,” Sara says with a sigh.
Their internet connection is unreliable. This fall and winter there have been many brief power outages due to electrical work in her building. With every outage, Sara’s screen freezes, and when it unfreezes, she realizes she’s missed three questions, and her stomach drops. If the devices are buggy or both laptops are in use because her mom needs to do her own school work, Sara logs in and does a class on her phone, which cramps her fingers and is hard to see.
Because the high school year is now divided into four mini-semesters called “quadmesters” of two classes at a time, courses are dense and flying fast—every minute counts, and every second the computer connection drops, she worries she’s falling behind. All of this is making Sara anxious, which is new for her. “I’ve never experienced anxiety over technology before. I never cared if one of our computers broke down because we could always go to the library,” she says. “But now, with this pandemic, you’re always scared your laptop’s going to break, like: Oh my god, do we need to get this fixed? I cannot afford a new laptop. Or, I can’t do this thing on my phone. How am I going to do it?”
The phrase “virtual school” might conjure an image of a Brady Bunch grid of kids nodding and talking and engaging in discussion—a simulacrum of a classroom that just happens to be online. But many kids never turn on their cameras or mics, and teachers can’t require them to. It’s an equity issue: not every kid has a mic, therefore a mic can’t be required. So a lot of the time, for older kids in particular, remote learning looks like a teacher talking in a square, and a bunch of avatars hovering, chiming in on chat. It’s easy to mentally check out even when present, but even more concerning are the students who never log on at all. Teachers report that many of their students seem to have simply disappeared.
Teachers are required to track down missing students by phone or email. I spoke to one teacher I’ll call Jane (she asked me not to use her real name), who this year is teaching core French in virtual school, a subject she hasn’t taught since 2006. She has six classes of Grade 4 students. Each “room” contains between 33 and 36 kids. She adores her students. Many are eagerly waiting when she logs on. “They’re clearly bored. They want something to do,” she says.
But a swath of students stay silent throughout the lessons, despite their avatars appearing on the screen, as if they’ve signed in and left the room. Some have never submitted any work. Others just don’t log in at all. Jane spends a good chunk of every day trying to track them down, often unsuccessfully. She suspects they lack reliable tech, or have parents who aren’t at home during the day or can’t navigate language barriers. When it came time to write report cards, Jane was at a loss. “I didn’t know a lot of students. I didn’t even know if they were male or female. I’d never seen them or heard them speak. Their parents never got back to me. Who are these kids?”
Omar Khan, a refugee advocate who works with newcomers in Toronto communities hit hard by Covid, has been talking to these “vanishing kids.” He’s heard from large families sharing one device, and parents who have no choice but to leave kids on their own while they go to work, hoping the kids will log on to school. Many newcomer students have family obligations, he says, like a boy he knows in Thorncliffe Park who had to act as an interpreter for his dad during several doctor’s appointments. Because the quadmesters are so accelerated, the boy fell behind fast, so he dropped the class. Another high school student called to ask if Khan could help find him a full-time job, since he needed money and the school was shut down. Khan explained that the student was still legally obligated to show up to school online, and the boy seemed genuinely surprised.
Brandy Humes teaches Grade 12 personal life management and Grade 11 fashion online. This fall, she had 60 students, most of whom came from low-income neighbourhoods. Fourteen of them never showed up at all. “There were many kids who just weren’t there. They didn’t come once. They disappeared and were impossible to track down. They had no contact information. It was mind-boggling. Those kids were just slipping through the cracks.” Humes became a detective, tracking down one student by calling the phone number on file, getting another number, then another, until she reached someone—an aunt, maybe?—who said, “Oh, she’s right here,” and handed over the phone. The student told Humes that she’d tried to log into Brightspace four times and couldn’t do it, so she gave up. At eight o’clock on a Sunday night, Humes set up a Google Meet and shared her screen, walking the student through the login process, then giving her a virtual tour of the classroom, while the aunt was nearby exclaiming, “Oh my goodness!” She seemed to have no idea that her niece was expected to be in online school.
“The process of trying to track them down was one-third of my job for the first month,” says Humes, “until I just said, I can’t do this anymore. I’m not an attendance counsellor, I can’t keep doing this because the time spent means I’m ignoring my students.” In a regular classroom, she’d ask those kids to stay after class—they might linger outside her door to talk privately, seeking help. There’s no corollary now; everyone logs off, and they’re gone.
There’s little evidence that this education method works. The scant research that’s out there focuses on learning among adults, and no one has studied the long-term effects on children of replacing entire schools with computers. Kelly Gallagher-Mackay, an educational researcher and assistant professor at Wilfrid Laurier University, has sifted through the studies, and describes the efficacy of online learning like this: “It’s fine for some, may work better for a few, but overall, it works less well on average than in-class, and the people for whom it works worst are already disadvantaged.” Students who get a decent experience online tend to have lives that allow a recreation of a classroom environment at home, with quiet spaces, books and supportive adults who are present. But many students don’t have those things. For these kids, school interruptions, because of closure or spotty internet, lead to severe learning loss.
In December, when mid-term marks were sent home, the Hamilton-Wentworth school board reported that the failure rate in fall courses had almost doubled over the course of this Covid year, to 16.4 per cent. The effects could last a lifetime: high failure rates correlate with high dropout rates, and dropping out of high school is one of the single biggest barriers to employment, economic security and long-term mental health.
Last March, when Toronto was still and silent and locked inside, the internet exploded. Across Canada, according to the Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association, between March and May, home internet traffic increased by as much as 48.7 per cent for download traffic and 69.2 per cent for uploads. Our computers and phones became our news sources, our offices, our social lives, our schools, our emotional and professional cosmos.
The CRTC deems a connection “high-speed” when downloads are 50 MB per second and uploads are 10 MB. Toronto has the infrastructure to deliver this to everyone; we’re not the rural north. For two decades, telecommunications companies, starting with Bell and Rogers, have been laying Toronto’s broadband paths—cable, phone lines and fibre—beneath the streets. “There’s a strong network of connectivity veins that branch from the larger pieces of infrastructure in the city,” says Matthew Hatfield of the digital advocacy group OpenMedia. “Most Torontonians live near high-speed internet infrastructure.” But in certain neighbourhoods, those pathways stop at the doorstep. Often, Hatfield says, lower-income buildings and older buildings farther from the city core are the hardest and least profitable for the telecoms to connect.
A recent report from Ryerson’s Brookfield Institute found that 38 per cent of households in Toronto—two out of five people—have slow, patchy internet access that fails to meet the CRTC’s 50-MB-per-second download target. Asked what bad access means to their lives, those surveyed listed missing out on critical services like government information, banking, health care and education.
Approximately five per cent of residents in the GTA—about 150,000 people—don’t have home internet at all, and the biggest reason is affordability. Canadians paid on average $81.70 per month per household for high-speed internet in 2018; not as exorbitant as our cellphone rates, but about $40 more than France. A survey of low-income Canadians by the anti-poverty group ACORN found that 35 per cent have made sacrifices to pay for internet, including skipping food, medication and transit to cover their internet bills.
Telecoms justify their prices as the cost of being Canadian. This is a vast country where building is expensive, according to Robert Ghiz, president and CEO of the Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association, which represents all the telecoms. “We have some of the fastest download speeds in the world in Canada with one of the most challenging geographies,” says Ghiz. “And yes, it costs a lot to build this.”
Big telecoms charge smaller competitors to lease their bandwidth, and in 2019, the CRTC ruled that they were keeping wholesale rates artificially high. Smaller internet providers were poised to received $325 million in retroactive payments. It looked like telecoms might be forced to significantly cut their rates. But several big cable companies banded together to overturn the decision.
Are high internet prices surprising? Capitalism gonna capitalism. What’s unique about the internet versus other consumer products is that connectivity is recognized as categorically different—a necessity, not a frill. In 2016, the UN General Assembly declared internet access a human right, crucial for freedom of opinion and expression. The same year, the CRTC elevated the internet to a “basic service,” as essential for Canadians as the telephone. In November, after many months of delays, the federal government announced the $1.75-billion Universal Broadband Fund, a flood of spending with the goal of bringing high-speed internet to 98 per cent of Canadians by 2026. But in Toronto, unlike in rural Canada, infrastructure isn’t the issue, cost is. Which leads to an important question: what is the internet? A product subject to the profit motives of private enterprise or something closer to a public utility?
People without home internet often rely on the kinds of hacks that don’t really work in a pandemic. Tim Hortons Wi-Fi isn’t available when Tim Hortons is closed. City libraries, hubs for free access, have left Wi-Fi on 24/7 since the pandemic began, and it’s common to see people sitting outside branches to get access. The city had planned to set up free public Wi-Fi stations in 20 different locations by the end of 2020, but the rollout has been stalled due to pandemic building restrictions. By December, only 25 per cent of hot spots had been completed.
Surveys repeatedly show that Canadian consumers loathe and distrust the telecoms. To improve their public profiles, and to make a small dent in inequality, most of the big companies have small-scale projects on the go that help low-income Torontonians get better connected.
During the first lockdown last spring, some companies temporarily waived overage fees. Because so many people who sign up for cheaper plans end up spending a lot on overage fees, Nathaniel Erskine-Smith, the MP for Beaches-East York, has called them “a tax on poor Canadians.” Telus donated 10,000 internet-loaded devices to charitable organizations across the country, and Rogers provided devices and limited plans to several not-for-profits, including Big Brothers Big Sisters of Canada so “littles” could stay in touch with “bigs.” Another program, called Digital Canopy, backed by Cisco and Bell and rolled out last September, put free hardware in two towers in the Rockcliffe-Smythe community, wiring about 2,200 people in 973 units where low-income Torontonians live. Cisco donated $1 million in hardware, and Bell provided the use of fibre for six months.
For some, charitable programs funded by telecoms have been a lifeline. Katelyn Wallace, who is 25, lives in subsidized housing in a three-storey building in North York with her mother, Shelley, a daycare worker, and her sister, Jasmin, who’s in Grade 3. The family was paying over $200 per month for TV and internet. Then Katelyn learned about a program called Connected for Success, a partnership between Rogers and Toronto Community Housing that offers internet for $9.99 a month to some low-income families in public housing. It was a huge savings, but the speeds aren’t great: up to 25 MB download and five MB upload, and data is capped at 100 GB. During the pandemic, Katelyn’s internet use has been higher than ever. She’s working from home, and spends many hours helping her little sister with online school. Her mom collected CERB at the beginning of the pandemic, and Katelyn’s hours were cut. She burned through her savings fast. At one point, her mother registered the family with a food bank. They would not have been able to afford their previous internet package. “This program lessens the stress on us. We can put that money toward rent, groceries and TTC.”
The federal government is sinking $13.2 million over five years into a similar program called Connecting Families, which offers $10-a-month internet to families receiving the maximum child benefit. In Ontario, Rogers is the partner. Letters to qualifying families went out to a million Canadians, but only 55,000 were connected as of last summer—an uptake of around five per cent. ACORN has heard from its members that many people who might qualify never received letters and don’t know the program exists. Other families have dropped out of the program because the connection is so slow.
In other words, on both the federal and the local level, the story is the same: bucket, meet drops. These programs are quick, temporary fixes that rely on the largesse of the very companies that keep costs high in the first place. One path to lower prices is breaking up the telecom oligarchy and opening the market to competition. Doing so would require the full force of the federal government’s regulatory power, and so far, Ottawa has moved at a sloth’s pace. True internet affordability may require an entirely new way of thinking about connectivity—as something more like water or health care than cable TV.
Lawrence Eta, the city’s chief technology officer, thinks Toronto needs to take matters into its own hands. In January, the City of Toronto announced a new proposal, named ConnectTO, to design and build its own Toronto-wide high-speed internet network, using public assets and infrastructure. Internet service providers will pay the city to use the new network, and that revenue will funnel back to neighbourhoods with poor connectivity, lowering internet costs for all. The goal is to move fast into under-resourced areas, bringing Jane and Finch and areas of Scarborough onto the new network by late this year. “We are no longer going to be passive,” says Eta. “You cannot build a digital society without high-speed internet access and affordability. It becomes a human rights issue.”
For Rayman Miller’s family, who have been at home since spring, the second lockdown in January hasn’t been so different. Their apartment is still also a school. Rayman hopes his job as a counsellor in an after-school program will start again in spring. Covid isn’t abstract anymore; two of his friends came down with it and were quarantined for a few weeks. “I’m trying to keep positive,” says Rayman on the phone.
He tells me about something positive: Rogers’s $10-dollar-a-month internet. His mother found out about it and is in the process of figuring out if they qualify. The savings would be welcome. Deshawn is struggling in Grade 9 and sometimes switches over to a tab with video games during class. Support workers from virtual school have called and are working with him over computer and phone. But sometimes he gets a sad face, which breaks Rayman’s heart. Rayman keeps thinking how different high school is for his brother than it was for him. “I could advocate for myself. I could go get help,” he says. “I could go down the hall and find someone.”
This story appears in the March 2021 issue of Toronto Life magazine. To subscribe for just $29.95 a year, click here.
An earlier version of this story reported that Bell raised home internet prices in June of 2020. In fact, that price hike happened in March of 2020.