For villagers in Brasso Venado, a rural community located in a lush, forested area of central Trinidad, the digital divide has added to the isolation and neglect they have been battling for decades.
Along with dilapidated roads and other chronic infrastructural problems, they now face the added challenge of their 30 school-age children being locked out of classes ever since schooling shifted online.
Internet access is a luxury available only to a few in Brasso Venado and it is only through the efforts of Marilyn Villafana, a former school principal who allows students to use her internet connection, that there is some access to online learning platforms.
A report by Guardian Media reporter Akash Samaroo brought some quick responses from Good Samaritans who are donating devices and cash. But that good news has to be looked at in the bigger context of the large number of children still struggling to access education online.
With just over a month left in the first and longest term of the school year, there is a stark reality to be confronted—the large number of children left behind since classes went online in September.
While there is dim hope of some in-person classes resuming in January, the dilemma of thousands of children losing out on teaching time is likely to persist for months to come.
Earlier this year, the Ministry of Education estimated that some 60,000 students did not have access to the Internet or electronic devices but anecdotal information since then suggests that number is much higher.
So, it turns out that COVID-19 has not only forced a shutdown of physical classes since mid-March but also laid bare the socio-spatial inequalities and resulting digital divide that has long existed in this country.
There has been a bit of a scramble to adapt to electronic modes of teaching and learning since the emergency of coronavirus and this country was largely unprepared for the challenge.
Available statistics are too out of date to present an accurate picture of T&T’s connectivity deficiencies. The latest available data, which puts the level of Internet penetration at 77.3 per cent, is from December 2018.
A year ago, the Telecommunications Authority of T&T (TATT) reported an increase in the number of mobile handsets used for basic calls with a penetration rate of 155 per cent. However, just 49 per cent of mobile users had internet data plans and about 20 per cent of local households lacked internet service.
This points to a big task ahead for telecommunications service providers. However, there are also some radical adjustments to be made by the Education Ministry, which must urgently develop a solid policy on online learning to guide teachers, students and parents for a country forced to make the quantum leap into the digital age.
This should be high on the agenda of the National Consultation on Education which kicked off earlier this week because, as the children in Brasso Venado, there are many others around the country locked out of online learning.