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Boise's Online Learning Challenges: Data Overages, Physical Distancing And ... Virtual Recess?

Boise Independent School District

When the Boise School Districtbegan another academic year this week, thousands of students, teachers and staff entered a new world. True, the district ended its spring semester at a distance; but educators and parents have much higher expectations for online learning if the pandemic continues to keep students away from classrooms.

"I have the ability to pop in and out of virtual class, just like I would pop in and out of live classes," said Rebecca Severson, principal at Roosevelt Elementary School. "Although it's different, I'm trying to keep those routines that I would have in the in-person setting." 

Severson and North Junior High School principal Jeff Roberts visited with Morning Edition host George Prentice to talk about the challenges and early successes that the new school year has already revealed.

“We have amazing teachers. We have fantastic families. We have a caring community. And that doesn't change just because we are in this online environment.”

Read the full transcript below:

GEORGE PRENTICE: It's Morning Edition on Boise State Public Radio News. Good morning. I'm George Prentice. The Boise School District began a new school year this week and for certain it's a school year unlike any other. We're going to talk a bit about that with two of the busiest people in the district. They are Jeff Roberts, principal of North Junior High School, and Rebecca Severson, principal at Roosevelt Elementary School. Up top, I'm interested in how you start your day. I've got a pretty good image of how you would traditionally get some face time with students and teachers and staff. But, Jeff, I'll start with you. Give me an idea of how you begin your day in this unique environment.

Credit Boise Independent School District
Jeff Roberts, North Junior High School principal

JEFF ROBERTS: You know, George, it's really kind of interesting in this environment. It doesn't start maybe, as you think, traditionally, literally. I think when most principals wake up in the morning, they pop their laptops open and start answering emails. You know, our our community has been fantastic, but this is new for all of us. And so really, that's what the day starts for me. I try not to send any doubt before 5:00 a.m. so people don't think I'm strange, but how it starts and then once we get class rolling, Google classroom has been fantastic in that, you know, we have sixty seven teachers here at North and I can drop into any of their classes at any time. And so I do drop in quite often. We're working on, you know, how to make that graceful for students and teachers, but we even pop around to the classrooms. All the teachers are in the rooms working away. And so that that's really kind of the start of the day for me is, you know, we start communicating with the community as needed. And then once we get the classroom, we just drop in, as we normally would. It's just a virtual platform.

Credit Boise Independent School District
Rebecca Severson, Roosevelt Elementary School principal

REBECCA SEVERSON: As an administrator, I work really hard every morning to go around and say hi to all my teachers. And that hasn't changed for me this year.

And I have a small school, so that's more manageable for me. But I walk around every morning and just say hi, how is how was yesterday, what is it today look like? And so I start my day just the same, although we're all in masks and we're all, you know, a little bit further apart than we would have been last year. But that remains the same. And then just like Jeff, I have the ability to pop in and out of virtual class, just like I would pop in and out of live classes.

So even though it's different, I'm trying to keep those routines that I would have in the in-person setting.

PRENTICE: Rebecca, I think it's important to note, just as you described, your teachers or most of your teachers are in their classrooms.

SEVERSON: Yes, at Roosevelt, we are all in our classrooms. And then we also have some teachers from the Boise Online School that are here, too. So we are fully functioning staff at our school right now.

PRENTICE: Jeff, do you have a sense of students’ online access, at least in this first week of school? Do all of your students have laptops and Wi-Fi?

ROBERTS: You know, George, I think the answer to that is yes. We started loaning back in the spring and then we've been continuing that process through the summer. And then, of course, as we started school, the interesting problems that we run into is this: as we've called every family to find out if they had access to a device and also the Wi-Fi. A lot of families said, “Yeah, we've got Wi-Fi, we're good.” But we found on day one that we ran through some of our parents’ data plans through their cell phone by the end of third period. And so what we've been doing is then picking them up for Wi-Fi hotspots that we're providing. And so I would say that that, yes, we have all of our kids we've talked with at some point their families, they all have devices or we're working with them to make sure that they have one that's that functions highly enough for the data demands that we're putting on the Google classroom.

PRENTICE: Rebecca, I have to guess that you've heard from some parents who say, hey, look, my son my daughter struggles in an online environment. To those parents. You say, what?

SEVERSON: Well, I think the way we've set up our virtual learning is to give the students the opportunity at the end of the day to meet with teachers either individually or in small groups, and so that teachers can meet the needs of that student based on conversations with parents and based on what they know of the student. And so, you know, as we get going throughout the next few weeks, I think we'll tighten that up even better. But we have those opportunities built into our day to meet those individual needs.

PRENTICE: Jeff, have you had those conversations?

ROBERTS: You know, we have and we use the same model that Rebecca just described. We also are looking at our students with special needs and how we meet those. And if we simply cannot do it on the online platform, we're not in lockdown anymore. And so we are able to bring students in from time to time. And we're starting to work on some of those plans, as we've seen even just in the last couple of days, where some kids are having some trouble. It's not a model to bring them in every day by any means, but it's just. To help build the skills to be able to access the help that we can provide online.

PRENTICE: Rebecca, I'm particularly interested in an elementary environment and the intangibles. Can you speak to those elements that were missing so far this year? Recess, sharing lunch? That's such a big deal at that age.

SEVERSON: And interestingly, I think that is one of the things that parents have been mostly concerned about, because we come to school for friendships and we come to school for socializing. And that is a challenge right now. One of the things we are doing at Roosevelt is we're going to have online recess as an option so that kiddos who maybe are in that online environment all the time and just want to get together and socialize with their same grade peers, we are going to host a platform for that. And so we're excited to try out new things to replace those social times with students because we know that's important.

PRENTICE: I can't wait to hear about that one.

SEVERSON: My recess staff has already got plans in place about games. They're going to play with kids about trying to get kids to interact with one another through the online environment. So while we have plans, we will give it a try and see how it goes.

PRENTICE: Jeff Roberts, what's your level of enthusiasm for the future?

ROBERTS: You know, I'm really excited about the future. I think that the scenario is difficult for families and kids. And there's nothing sadder than seeing a group of teachers who are just waiting for their kids to walk into the door. And it doesn't happen. But to see the work they put into and the effort and the creativity, it's just the magic of education. So I'm really excited. I think that we're going to deliver great education. It will never be beautiful like it is in a classroom because that's what they're also good at. But I'm confident that especially in junior high, as we're working for credit to move forward, I'm really excited about what our teachers are going to do and to really see them kind of turn into being a first year teacher. And the enthusiasm and effort they're putting into that is has been fantastic. So I feel great about the future.

SEVERSON: You know, Monday I had a teacher run down the stairs and she said, this family is calling me. They cannot connect their device. Can I get permission to just drive over to their home, meet them at their in their front yard and help them? And I think that right there sums up for me my hope for the future. We have amazing teachers. We have fantastic families. We have a caring community. And that doesn't change just because we are in this online environment. So it is been overwhelming for me to watch. Teachers. And their love for children. I'm sorry I got a little emotional there, but it's been very, very helpful.

PRENTICE: Well, that's the right kind of emotion. She is Rebecca Severson, principal at Roosevelt Elementary School, and he's Jeff Roberts, principal at North Junior High School in the Boise School District. Well, all the best to you, your teachers, staff and students. Thank you.

ROBERTS: Thank you, George.

SEVERSON: Thanks, George. It was a pleasure.

Find reporter George Prentice on Twitter @georgepren

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