Park it: Wi-Fi access is not educational equity

Last week, as Ottawa school boards began to take stock of the number of students without computers and Wi-Fi access, the Ottawa Catholic School Board (OCSB) announced that students who didn’t have Wi-Fi at home could access board Wi-Fi in school parking lots. Before focusing on the absurdity of students sitting in a school parking lot to complete the Ontario Education Ministry–recommended minimum number of hours of schoolwork, let’s back up for a minute. Does anyone really believe that the OCSB thinks this measure is optimal? 

Ironically, the board’s clumsy attempt to accommodate students’ needs—in this case, access to Wi-Fi for online lessons—only succeeded in underscoring what parents, educators and activists have been saying for weeks. Public education is inseparable from the broader socioeconomic context in which kids and their families live, which means online learning (or emergency learning) has massive equity implications.  

No doubt there are kids out there who follow these lessons, emailed to them from their teachers, with minimal supervision. They read the assigned texts, listen to the podcasts, watch the videos. They check in as scheduled over Google Classroom, do their independent reading, record an audio book review and send it in at the end of the week. Easy peasy. 

But there are also other parents struggling to support their child’s learning while working from home, who gear up for daily arguments and negotiation between work meetings. Twenty minutes of reading for a ½ hour of TikTok? A math worksheet in exchange for a Google Hangout with friends? 

And there are parents for whom English or French is not their first language. Or who are managing their own challenges or trauma. Or who are struggling to support their child’s Individualized Education Plan while communicating with a teacher and possibly an educational assistant, both of whom are trying to stay connected with and support the learning of dozens of other kids at the same time.

Of course, not all parents are working from home with regular incomes and can maintain some stability in the face of a new reality that may be deeply unsettling to their kids, some of whom are traumatized by the unprecedented upheaval to their lives. 

There are so many others who are laid off, or have had their hours vastly reduced, wondering if they’ll qualify for the Canadian Emergency Relief Benefit (CERB). Parents who already know they don’t qualify for income support and wonder how they’ll get through to the end of the week. Parents who are frontline service providers and who put themselves at risk each day. Parents who are themselves already sick. 

The impacts of COVID-19 are not equitably distributed, because families’ socioeconomic realities are vastly different. This has implications for kids’ learning experiences at all times, but particularly with just-in-time crisis-learning at home during a global pandemic.    

While absolutely not a solution, the Ottawa school board’s clumsy offer is at least rooted in the recognition that some kids have reliable Wi-Fi at home while others do not. But of this second group, which kids have access to a vehicle or can get a ride to school (meaning the driver also has to leave the house during a pandemic) and sit in a car while doing their work? Which kids would have to take the bus (during a pandemic) and sit on the pavement (hopefully without being ticketed by bylaw for ignoring physical distancing rules, I repeat, during a pandemic)? 

This underscores what so many educators and advocates have been saying for months, throughout the ministry’s insistence that mandatory e-learning was about increasing options and flexibility for students: society is deeply, fundamentally unequal. Providing students with parking lot Wi-Fi does not ensure educational equity—or any kind of equity. 

More generally, if the goal is to support vulnerable students, why is access to Wi-Fi and Chromebooks (which the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board is distributing to students who lack them) prioritized over smaller classes and more one-on-one time with educators and education workers, which would have a significant impact on students’ educational experience, equity and well-being, today and beyond the pandemic?   

For many kids, the actual physical schoolhouse means access to breakfast and lunch programs, library books, extracurricular activities, supervised sports, a play structure, friends, and a support network of adults and other students. With the building shuttered, those things are no longer readily available. And no off-key, well-meaning school board parking lot directive during a pandemic can remedy that vast socioeconomic divide that families, educators and schools try every day to mitigate, while being told to “do more with less.”     

One upshot to the province-wide shutdown is that it has underscored how the bricks-and-mortar infrastructure of schools helps obscure the deep and systemic inequity that surrounds us. Lack of access to schools has elected leaders and bureaucracies scrambling to compensate for what is being revealed: the decades of neglect, the tidal wave of private enhancements certain families can afford, and the families who have been left to try and navigate what remains with minimal assistance. 

Not only have policy-makers awoken to the apparently shocking discovery that kids and their families are impacted by COVID-19 in deeply unequal ways, they’re being forced to acknowledge and respond quickly. It’s not enough, not by a long shot, but for the first time in recent memory no one is denying the depth of the need, or the necessity of a comprehensive solution. 

That said, nothing can be taken for granted: the education terrain is always a contested one, and vultures are already circling. It will take persistence and vigilance to make sure no one tries to put that class analysis toothpaste back in the austerity tube. 


Note: This blog was updated to clarify that, in response to concerns about the significant number of students without access to computers and Wi-FI, the OCDSB and OCSB provided a number of free Chromebooks and Wi-FI hotspots, in addition to the OCSB’s announcement that they were making Wi-FI available in school parking lots.

Erika Shaker is the Director of the CCPA National Office and Editor of Our Schools / Our Selves. She is on Twitter at @ErikaShaker.