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As Alice Cooper might proclaim, “School’s out!” – until at least May 1 in Nova Scotia. Public school classes for students in Primary to Grade 12 are cancelled for this newly extended period to protect the public from further spread of COVID-19. Premier Stephen McNeil made the announcement Monday on the advice of Chief Medical Officer of Health Robert Strang.

McNeil spoke bravely about “learning opportunities” at home. The news release that accompanied the announcement contains links to online packages of curriculum materials and suggestions for all grade levels, in both English and French.

There are also tutors available to students early in the evening to help with math assignments and projects at the Homework Hub.

Both resources are impressive and are welcome supports to families struggling to keep their children engaged in learning with highly variable personal resources in their homes, and without the benefit of any schedule or professional teachers during this surreal time. Both the Nova Scotia Teachers’ Union and Department of Education can take a bow.

The problem, as the premier and the news release acknowledges, is that in this province, an awful lot of households still don’t have access to highspeed internet. They simply aren’t connected.

So the “default” setting during the ongoing closure of public schools is as stated in the news release below:

— all Grade primary to 9 students will receive at-home learning packages distributed bi-weekly by SaltWire Network
— students in grades 10 to 12 who require at-home learning packages will work with their individual teachers to address their specific needs; additional information on distribution will be forwarded to schools.

The news release suggests high-school students may have an opportunity to do some courses online, provided their home has wifi, because all public libraries are shut down and couldn’t possibly meet the demand even if they were open. According to Develop NS (the provincial Crown corporation tasked two years ago to find a way to deliver highspeed internet to “unserved and underserved areas”), there are 88,000 households that still don’t have adequate internet access in the year 2020.

In case you’re wondering what that slippery word “adequate” means, Develop NS defines it as: “Wired technology projects will provide minimum speeds of 50 Mbps to download and 10 Mbps to upload. Wireless technologies will provide minimum speeds of 25 Mbps to download and 5 Mbps to upload, allowing users to browse email, download music and large files, play online games, and stream high definition video.”

There are still almost the same number of households waiting for this since March of 2018 when the province put $193 million from an offshore revenue windfall into the NS Internet Investment Trust. It took until February of this year for Develop NS to announce the first round of Projects — $45 million worth of spending. The bulk of this work is being carried out in Colchester and Cumberland counties, and is supposed to be finished at the end of this year. A second round of projects will be launched this summer. Maybe the kids will still be in school? Or not, depending on which of several scenarios you find most realistic.

“Currently, about 70% of homes and businesses have access to high speed internet,” said the February 7,2020 news release from Develop NS. “Today’s announcement means 86% of homes and businesses will have access to the service, close to the goal of achieving more than 95%.”

“This is great progress,” said the premier quoted in the news release. “A better-connected Nova Scotia is critical to our expanding economy and our quality of life.”

Nova Scotians could be forgiven for imagining the premier — and several of his predecessors — in a Captain Obvious costume when they’ve intoned those words.

The pandemic reminds us daily how far behind the curve this province is in connecting its population to 21st century internet services. Action on more than a decade of promises simply hasn’t come fast enough. The arrival of COVID-19 rubs that truth in our face as both commercial and personal life have migrated online.  With face-to-face contact outlawed, the only way to stay connected is to be connected.  And that’s still either a work-in-progress or a dream for many Nova Scotians, depending on their state of mind on a given day.

Contracts have been signed with five internet service providers that include Cross Country in Canning, Kings Co.; Mainland Telecom serving Middleton; Seaside Communications in Sydney; Bell Canada, and Xplornet, based in Woodstock, New Brunswick. Overall, the projects will provide access to high-speed connections for more than 42,000 homes and businesses.

On March 20, as it became clearer people were going to be staying home well  beyond the March Break, the province dangled an additional $15 million as an incentive “to support the acceleration of Internet delivery.”

“We are currently working with all providers of approved projects to identify ways to speed up delivery of access, including additional funding, removal of regulatory barriers, and exploration of interim solutions,” said Develop NS communications director Deborah Page when asked where things stand today.

“We are also working with all pre-approved providers to identify interim technical solutions, including leveraging the cellular network, that could provide temporary community-based solutions,” Page continued. “These are prioritized as follows by the Province:  1. Health, 2. Education, 3. Business Continuity. As soon as we have specifics to share on these ongoing efforts, we will do so.”

The Nova Scotia Internet Funding Trust will authorize spending from the $15 million incentive only if the proposed solution provides a demonstrable improvement in delivery time. Projects will be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. There are 15 Internet Service Providers offering a range of wired and wireless technologies that have been pre-qualified and approved by Develop NS to get the work done. Unfortunately, a pandemic may be a difficult time to find anyone available to take on a rush job.

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Jennifer Henderson is a freelance journalist and retired CBC News reporter.

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