The rollout of free internet to connect students during lockdown was too slow for more than half of those who needed it, new Ministry of Education figures show.
Information obtained under the Official Information Act reveals that as of June 11, a month after the country moved to alert level 2 from the first lockdown, fewer than half of students identified as lacking an internet connection were online.
A total of 66,544 were identified as not having an internet connection in April, and
by early June fewer than 30,000 had been connected.
The remainder were defined as "under way"- meaning the house was not connected but had been allocated a provider.
As of October 1, the ministry
said it had arranged internet connections with service providers for 45,900 students' homes.
The data comes after figures showed, as of August 11, 70,000 students needing a device such as a laptop or Chromebook still had not received one.
Wellington's Natone Park School principal Daryl Aim told the Herald only one word comes to mind when he hears of the initiative- shemozzle.
"No communication that made any sense came out of the ministry, we were told students were getting devices, we weren't told when. I think for our school we were down to get about 40 devices and to date we've had 10 randomly show up."
The Porirua principal fears
that if the country moves back into lockdown his pupils would be no better off than they were last time.
"We [the students] don't have devices, we don't have internet. And this huge void between the haves and the have-nots became evident."
Based on the "poorly organised" rollout, he's concerned the ministry may be out of touch with how bad things are for disadvantaged students.
The ministry's early learning and student achievement deputy secretary Ellen MacGregor Reid said getting accurate address information and confirming the site with internet providers had been a major challenge.
"And where homes needed a technician visit to set up the connection, that wasn't possible under levels 3 or 4."
Given the level of demand - and funding available - the ministry had to prioritise devices for students studying NCEA subjects in Years 11-13, starting with deciles 1-3.
"The ministry's goal was for students to have at least one channel available for distance learning while they are away from school during the Covid-19 response and providing computers to students was only one of the supports that have been made available."
Hard copy learning materials were also sent to students over lockdown.
Initially the free internet was earmarked to last six months, but the ministry said it was now extended until February next year.
University of Canterbury associate professor Cheryl Brown specialises in e-learning and told the Herald internet access needs to be available to all students to avoid
creating systematic inequities.
"If we just took it away we're basically saying that internet is voluntary and that you can choose to have it."
Compounding the stress of missing out on learning is the disruption of children's social networks.
"If you're not able to interact with your peers, it's a really important way of young people connecting with each other. Those social parts of learning would have been cut off quite considerably."
The ministry was funded to connect up to 53,000 student households that did not have an internet connection before the Covid-19 lockdown.
The need for devices remains high: in August, 70,000 students still did not have computers at home as the Auckland headed into another stint of online learning.
Te Akatea Māori Principals' Association president Myles Ferris said the Government needs to have a much better strategy around allowing all students access to the internet - and not just because of the pandemic.
"It's engagement after hours, doing homework, all that sort of stuff."
In many New Zealand schools he said there is an expectation to be able to access learning out of school.
"When any student doesn't have access to that they're at a disadvantage and obviously for Māori that just exacerbates the challenge that we have to close the gap."
The ministry said connectivity is wider than education, and confirmed it's working with other agencies with the aim of reaching a sustainable solution for households that need help to access the internet.
MacGregor Reid said it was a complex programme to roll out internet and devices and there was limited stock of laptops and Chromebooks.
The Ministry has now supplied around 35,600 computer devices to schools for students who didn't have access to one.
"I think we've delivered well given the constraints at play."