Life Lessons: How The Boise School District Is Adapting To All-Remote Learning

Apr 9, 2020

Credit David Erickson / Flickr Creative Commons

With every passing day, the likelihood grows that Idaho K-12 schools won’t reopen this academic year, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result, school officials across the Gem State are moving at lightning speed to roll out an unprecedented level of at-home online instruction.

In the Boise Independent School District, for instance, officials are distributing thousands of laptops this week to homes that are technically-challenged.

“Plus, we’ve identified 1,700 Boise households that need some kind of WiFi connection,” said Debbie Donovan, Boise High Area Director.

Donovan and Boise School District Deputy Superintendent Lisa Roberts visited with Morning Edition host George Prentice to talk about the herculean task which will forever change the learning experience for every Boise schoolchild.

“The No. 1 thing are the relationships. That’s really difficult right now. And kids aren't just home away from school; they're away from their friends.”

Read the full transcript below:

GEORGE PRENTICE: It's Morning Edition on Boise State Public Radio News. Good morning. I'm George Prentice. When COVID-19 struck one of its first victims in Idaho was the current school year. Public schools were closed across the gem state, sending students home with their parents and a stay-at-home state-wide order soon followed from the governor, and that sent Idaho school officials into uncharted territory, how to, as quick as possible, create and roll out a new model of instruction.

Joining us this morning are two women tasked with that huge challenge in the Boise School District. Deputy School Superintendent, Lisa Roberts, and Boise High Area Director, Debbie Donovan join us both via Google. Good morning to you both.


PRENTICE: First off, if you can give us a timetable of where we are with the Boise School District rolling out online instruction.

ROBERTS: So we started after spring break, we rolled out our phase one of remote learning, and this involved giving us 10 days to assess our students, their home, what their situation is at home regarding their tech devices as well as access to internet, as well as just the basics of finding out how they're doing and what supports they need.

PRENTICE: Can I pause you there? That must've been, what, thousands of phone calls.

ROBERTS: That's correct. We first thought that we could simply do a survey with parents, but that's not realistic. If we're asking about their access to wifi and we're doing an online survey, that's not going to really give us the answers we needed. So we wanted to reach out personally to every one of our families. In the secondary schools, that might've even given a parent a couple of calls.

DONOVAN: We wanted a couple things, just to find out how they were doing, what their needs were, were they accessing our food drop-off sites for meal service, childcare situations, anything like that, as well as then find out their needs for devices as well as for their internet access.

After that, we rolled out, they attend plan of just getting kids back into the groove of scheduling learning for themselves. While this was not course specific, it was grade level specific, so we gave them lesson plans, home lesson plans that were focusing mainly on the core subjects and some digital experiences as well. But just trying to get them back into the groove of learning.

So that is going to end up this week. On April 13, we will roll into our phase two, because at this time we will have now delivered all of the devices out. We're in the process of doing that during this week. Any student that needs devices, families that need any devices, and it's not just one per family, it's, if needed, one per each child, as well as we're looking at how we can provide access to the hotspots.

PRENTICE: And when you say devices, you're talking about Chromebooks. Yes?

DONOVAN: So we do have a lot of Chromebooks in our schools, and one of the things we discovered was that there were a lot of families, they might have a phone at home, but they didn't have a device they could actually do homework on. Over the course of these next few days we're handing out close to 6,000 Chromebooks, we will be deploying once we get them. And we have ordered 500 hotspots, but what we've discovered was we have 1,700 households that really still need wifi.

So, we're working with local phone carriers to try to determine if they can use a hotspot on their phone with the Chromebook and figuring out our neediest tiers of students. So high school students that have credit bearing accelerated advanced placement courses. We even have 25 teachers that need hot spots that did not have access to wifi in their homes.

PRENTICE: Can we talk for a moment about, well, the things that the internet can't provide, the personal and often unspoken interaction between a student and a teacher and the joy of recess and all of the wonderful things that make going to a physical school so wonderful. And how do you meet that challenge?

DONOVAN: The great thing about the phone calls that were made by every teacher in this district was they said that they were some of the most meaningful conversations they've had with families, and I think it was because we'd had that break in time where they were away from their students. Our families in the Boise School District choose our public schools because there are so many things they can get in the bricks and mortar setting that you can't get online. Like you mentioned, recess. It's that relationship is really difficult to build online versus in the classroom. We've heard it from so many high school students and especially our seniors about prom, about those big awards assemblies that go on, especially in the month of April and May.

So, I think the No. 1 thing are the relationships. That’s really difficult right now. And kids aren't just home away from school; they're away from their friends.. So we've seen that have a huge impact also on them. Like I said, when people choose Boise schools, they choose it for all those reasons that we can deal with in the bricks and mortar setting, and online it's difficult. But I think we're going to see some pretty phenomenal things that our teachers come up with in the next few weeks to build up those relationships in a virtual setting.

PRENTICE: I've got just a couple of minutes left. I want to ask about something that I read in the minutes of the most recent meeting of the Boise School Board of Trustees. The board agreed that the student were completed during the school closure, "Must not negatively impact a student's grades, but that schools may allow student work to count during the closure only if it will increase a student's academic standing." And if I read this right, does that mean that a student's progress can only improve?

ROBERTS: That's absolutely correct. This was very important from our parents' perspective as well as even our classroom teachers were very concerned that, in third and fourth quarter, it's a running grade book, if you will. And so, students are working towards that end of year grade and they're continually working through their work to see if there's, as they learn concepts, they are improving their grade.

So teachers wanted to provide that opportunity for students to use this time to get core specific learning as well as enrichment, but then have the opportunity to reassess on some of those ideas and concepts that were previously taught, possibly replace some of those lower grades with work that they're doing here so that they do have the opportunity, because we do want them to feel successful and have that encouragement and feedback from the teachers through this process.

DONOVAN: What's really important too is that everybody's talking about online learning, and truly what we're doing is emergency remote learning. And so, we didn't want that to be a hindrance to any student's grade or their progress to the next grade level. So as we navigate this new emergency remote learning, we want to make sure that it is the best possible scenario for our students.

PRENTICE: Can we just pause for a second? Just the very phrase emergency remote learning. Something like this would normally take years to think about, to debate, to test, to roll out. This is rather stunning.

ROBERTS: It really is. And I think that our families are going to discover, I think first they're going to be a little bit surprised, they're going to expect to know five to six periods of instruction every day, and we've really slowed that down because it is emergency remote learning. It's not your typical online environment that someone chooses. Interestingly enough, I have my own son is in college and had to switch to online and that's hard at the college level even when you haven't been adapted to that.

So I think we have to remember this is a whole new world for folks, and not only are we trying to do emergency remote learning, but we're trying to navigate it in a scenario that we have never seen before in the nation or the world.

PRENTICE: Lisa Roberts is the Deputy School Superintendent for the Boise School District. And Debbie Donovan is Boise High area director. Best of luck in the coming weeks and stay healthy and stay safe.

Find reporter George Prentice on Twitter @georgepren

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