Idaho EdNews Chronicles The Disconnected In Idaho's Distance Learning

May 26, 2020

Idaho school districts are wrapping up a semester unlike any other. Shuttered since early April, most districts reported early success in then-untested distance learning techniques for hundreds of thousands of K-12 students. That said, there still have been hundreds (at least) of other students who have gone "off the grid."

Simply put, some of Idaho largest school districts lost touch with up to 5% of their students, according to Idaho EdNews. There may be multiple reasons: perhaps parents threw in the towel on the semester, while others may have moved away from the district to shelter-in-place elsewhere. 

"It's just kind of a helpless feeling, not being able to contact them," said one Boise Independent School District elementary school principal.

Idaho EdNews' Sami Edge visited with Morning Edition host George Prentice to talk about her report, titled "A Helpless Feeling: Hundreds of Children Unaccounted For in the Switch to Distance Learning."

“There are hundreds of kids in Idaho's largest school districts who have not had any communication with their schools for the last six weeks.”

Read the full transcript below:

GEORGE PRENTICE: It's Morning Edition on Boise State Public Radio News. Good morning, I'm George Prentice. For certain, this school year has been unlike any other. When the pandemic hit state school officials and local school districts across Idaho scrambled to provide some kind of distance learning. While there have been many stories of optimism about how that has worked for many families, one of the more underreported stories is the number of Idaho children who have fallen through the cracks. Sami Edge as a reporter with Idaho Ed News, and she has been following that story. Her story is titled A Helpless Feeling, it is a must read at idahoednews.org. She joins us live this morning via Zoom, so let's say good morning to Sami Edge. Good morning.

SAMI EDGE: Hi, George. Thanks for having me.

PRENTICE: This report goes far beyond the conversation about the broadband disconnect. Correct me if I'm wrong, we're talking about a disconnect at the personal level, the daily check in that students and counselors have with the kids.

EDGE: What I was interested in looking at for this story was how many kids have not had any contact with their district since schools closed. That's even different than not checking in regularly, where I'm sure many students don't check in with their teacher every day, but there are hundreds of kids in Idaho's largest school districts who have not had any communication with their schools for the last six weeks.

PRENTICE: Who did you talk to?

EDGE: I spoke with a handful of the largest districts in the state. Districts like West Ada, Pocatello, Coeur d'Alene, VallIvue.

PRENTICE: You talked to them…when? Mid April? Late April?

EDGE: Right. The story came out in early May, so most of my reporting was in late April, the last week or two of April.

PRENTICE: There are so many things that jumped out of this story. The first I'd like to ask you about is a conversation that you had with the principal at Whittier Elementary here in Boise, saying that teachers certainly worry about a student falling behind academically, but their fears run much deeper than that.

EDGE: This gets to the point that schools have evolved to be about so much more than education. I mean, they are really the cornerstone of the child and family safety net. They are the institution that checks in with families most often. At schools like Whittier in Boise, they're community schools. They are oriented around making sure that families have food, providing access to counseling and really going above and beyond education. In a setting like this, where the school is very close to these families, it's really concerning when all of a sudden you just haven't heard from anyone.

PRENTICE: The worst of the worst of that might be, heaven forbid, child abuse, neglect, or something like that.

EDGE: Certainly. It's impossible to say exactly what the circumstances are in these households if we haven't been able to get in contact with them.

PRENTICE: The Superintendent at Vallvue - you spoke to him and he made a point of saying, yeah, the statistics are the statistics, but he puts a face to this. It's deeply concerning if even just one or two fall off the map.

EDGE: Right. I think that's important. In these big districts that I spoke to, I would say on average about 99% of their families had been in communication with the schools. We're looking at about 1% of students in many of these districts, but even then 1% of students in a 25,000-student district like Boise is still hundreds of kids.

PRENTICE: That we know of.

EDGE: That we know of, yep. I think what Superintendent Pat Charlton in Valley View was really getting at is we may have connected with the majority of our families and it's great that 99% are talking to us, but even one kid that we can't reach, that's scary. We want to be there for this kid, we want to make sure they're doing okay at home first of all, and then second of all, we want to make sure that we can give them some kind of learning resources.

PRENTICE: Especially at that secondary level, when that may be the biggest fork in the road for a young adult.

EDGE: Certainly. I think he made a really good point, which speaks to a lot of the theoretical reasons that these kids might not be in contact. Some districts have decided that they're not grading and that student performance during distance learning won't count against those kids. So it's possible that if kids at the secondary level know that, they've just decided not to engage. They've decided that they were okay with their grade in March and they want to go on an early summer vacation.

PRENTICE: Wow, just throwing the towel in.

EDGE: Yeah. Of course there are other very real concerns too about have families been evicted? Did they go out of state and shelter in place with their family in another state? There are a lot of possibilities here, but it's really hard to pin down exactly what's going on.

PRENTICE: That's exactly right. Their healthcare, their nutrition.

EDGE: Some parents have said that they just decided that they didn't want their kids to continue with the learning or they decided to homeschool instead.

PRENTICE: Talk a little bit about what you found out in a conversation with the superintendent in Bonneville. I thought this was very interesting, in that this pandemic revealed a shortfall in their district.

EDGE: This came up in a conversation in Bonneville, but I think it's likely very true in every district, that as they had to pivot very quickly to distance learning, all of the sudden we had measures to prevent us from face-to-face interaction so we had to turn to email and phone numbers. When he was doing a survey, he found at least a hundred parents that the district didn't have good contact information for. So at that point, maybe you move beyond that to put letters in the mail, which is something I know the Boise district has done also.

PRENTICE: Have you gotten any feedback or follow-up since this story went live?

EDGE: I did check in with one of the districts before this interview, just to see whether these numbers had changed very much in the last few weeks. I spoke with the Boise district, and in early May they had about 140 families that they hadn't contacted. As of yesterday, that number was down to 125. So they may contact week by week, little by little, but there's still 125 kids who might come into the next school year blind, educationally, because they've missed the last six weeks.

PRENTICE: The title of the report is “A Helpless Feeling,” and indeed that's a direct quote from one of the school officials. She is Sami Edge, reporter with Idaho Ed News. Sami, as always, great stuff. Thank you so very much.

EDGE: Yeah, thanks for having me.

Find reporter George Prentice on Twitter @georgepren

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