The shutdown continues across Ontario following the extension of measures in the north last week by the provincial government to align with the southern region.
One notable difference is the education component. Unlike their Southern Ontario counterparts, today students from seven northern districts participating in in-person learning returned to their classrooms for the first time since last month. Where possible, Ontario students learned remotely last week, the first week of instruction after the holiday break. In the south, students will continue to learn remotely until a tentative Jan. 25 return.
Notably, the government has made the distinction between education approaches in the north and south as having to do — at least partially — with the reliability and quality of internet services available (or lack thereof).
In his media conference announcing the adjusted shutdown measures, Premier Doug Ford touched on common speaking points surrounding the pandemic, including encouraging all Ontarians to stay home as much as possible to minimize transmission of the virus and prevent hospitals from becoming overwhelmed.
During that news conference, the provincial government acknowledged the move to return to the classroom was in response "to the fact that Northern Ontario students are not able to learn at home as effectively due to limited access to reliable Internet service."
These technological shortcomings are common knowledge in the north, where the challenges revolve around the lack of infrastructure, partnerships, and money. Organizations such as Blue Sky Net have advocated and worked for years to help bring improved broadband services to Northern Ontario.
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Although broadband regulation falls under federal oversight, according to the provincial government it is making progress thanks to its investment and partnerships.
"Our government has invested nearly $1 billion to expand and improve broadband and cellular services right across the province, including in rural and remote areas, in addition to $15 million for online learning devices," advised Caitlin Clark, a spokesperson from the office of Minister of Education Stephen Lecce. Last week, Ontario "invested an additional $80 million for additional devices for schools, including those for connectivity. We will never hesitate from taking further action to support our students and keep them safe"
The fact remains, the current system is not deemed capable — by the government responsible for delivering education — of supporting the students in northern districts to an adequate level, at least not with all of them logged on at once. Twice last week, the Near North District School Board's director of education emailed parents to address internet outages causing issues across the province.
Students have been given the option to receive virtual instruction this school year, in part or in full. Asked about the return to class of many of its students, the Near North District School Board acknowledges those internet connectivity issues in the north.
NNDSB is "proud of the continued efforts of our students, families and staff throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. While Internet has and continues to offer a challenge to some of our families, we are doing everything in our power to support them and their children to learn."
These challenges are not unique to NNDSB and additional measures are in place so students may continue to learn remotely in all school boards, as they have since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
"To date, NNDSB has provided students with devices to allow them to learn at home. When it comes to connectivity issues or the family not having access to Internet, NNDSB provides them with portable sticks or SIM cards to allow students to access LTE on devices such as an iPad. In addition, students are able to receive paper packets from their teachers. NNDSB is satisfied that the needs of its students are being met and often exceeded during the pandemic."
The Ministry of Education has stated it will "continue to act on the best advice of medical and health experts to ensure that students in Northern Ontario are able to return to school safely and, when safe to do so, students in Southern Ontario as well."
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The Ministry of Education's Clark addressed the return to in-person learning:
"Schools are reopening with the full approval of the Chief Medical Officer of Health as we have seen low levels of cases and transmission within Ontario’s publicly funded schools in Northern Ontario. For context, of the 496 schools, only six had an active case of COVID-19. We will be expanding asymptomatic testing province-wide including in the north and providing additional funding for technology, PPE, cleaning and air ventilation improvements."
Meanwhile, the NNDSB says it continues to follow the protocols and guidelines outlined by health officials and the government.
"Ontario’s top officials have said numerous times that keeping schools open for students is highly important for several reasons, including their mental health and well-being. In addition to the number of COVID-19 cases in schools in the north are incredibly low and not a source of transmission."
Ontario is providing an additional $10 million in support of student mental health for those requiring additional support. This includes funding for Kids Help Phone to support children and youth across the province. School Mental Health Ontario will be providing mental health resources and strategies to support students during this period.
The NNDSB tells BayToday there have been some pandemic challenges that were out of their control but "we are confident in the ability of students, families, and teachers to adapt and continue to learn. Children are resilient in adapting to new learning environments when the appropriate supports are in place."