About 18 percent of students in the Boise School District will learn online-only for the first half of the 2020-21 school year in a new virtual schoolhouse called the Boise Online School.
The platform, built in a matter of months, had a hectic rollout. Late-summer enrollment deadlines, and higher-than-expected interest meant Boise had to recruit more teachers only weeks before the start of school. Parents report tech issues and tears — but also, triumphs.
One month into the new online learning experiment, reviews are mixed. Some parents are satisfied with the alternative to in-person learning. Others got so fed up they quit the Boise Online School and ended up leaving the school district all together.
Like climbing a mountain
The idea behind the Boise Online School was to give families and teachers the option to keep learning with the Boise School District even if they didn’t feel comfortable returning to classrooms in the fall. To be sure, the move also retains enrollment — and state funding — for students who might have otherwise moved to an online school or virtual charter.
Families with health risks flocked to the platform, as did parents just looking for some consistency in what promises to be a variable school year. (Boise Online Students are locked into online-learning for the entire fall semester.)
The district expected to have a maximum of 2,000 students sign up, Boise Online School principal Amanda Kuznia said.
Then around 4,600 students enrolled.
“The numbers just kept booming and booming and booming,” Kuznia said.
The unexpected enrollment meant Boise had to redirect 40 teachers from brick-and-mortar classrooms to the Boise Online School only two weeks before the school year began. The district says all online teachers received the same back-to-school training.
Teachers, parents and administrators all acknowledged technological “hiccups” at the outset of the school year, not just for the online school but for all 25,000 Boise School District students who started the year in distance learning. The district IT team served 6,000 help tickets in the first two weeks of the school year, director David Roberts said.
First-grade teacher Brenley Fife said the rollout of the new online school was actually smoother than she anticipated, though regular attendance is spotty some days when her students drop in-and-out of lessons because of internet issues. Another challenge, Fife said, is meeting the diverse needs of her students, who are starting the year with all different technological and learning needs.
“It really has been a customized approach,” to make sure that we’re doing everything we possibly can, that’s feasible and within our power, to make changes or adjustments based on the needs of a given child,” district spokesman Dan Hollar said.
One month into the first semester teachers are feeling like they’ve hit their stride Kuznia said. Most families have stuck along for that ride. As of last week about .5 percent of students had left the online school for another option.
“I felt like it was a mountain we were climbing,” said elementary administrator James Bright. “…It’s hard work, but it’s worth the work.”
“I was very apprehensive”
Juliana Bounds never felt certain about her decision to enroll her kids in the Boise Online School.
Boise’s back-to-school plans flip-flopped in the days before the enrollment deadline approached, and Bounds didn’t feel she had enough information about the online versus traditional classroom options. Bounds has type 1 diabetes, which could put her at an elevated risk if she gets the coronavirus, and Ada County’s coronavirus rates peaked during the summer, piling on uncertainty about whether it was safe for her kids to go back to school.
She decided to enroll her three daughters online.
“I was very apprehensive about it in the beginning,” Bounds said. Her daughters hit some connectivity snags off the bat and Bounds didn’t think the online rollout was well organized. She had to ask the district for an updated computer for one daughter and she purchased a new tablet for school work.
But the Boise Online School improved over time, Bounds said. She’s impressed with her daughter’s third-grade teacher and likes that all three of her girls are learning how to do independent work.
“The whole situation our kids are in right now is not ideal. A pandemic is not something anyone expected,” Bounds said. “Considering the challenges and the obstacles, they are having a positive experience overall.”
Five parents told Idaho Education News much the same: Tech and communication issues are getting better, and kids have have settled into the online-learning routine.
“We’ve been really happy, it’s night and day from the spring,” said Adriane Dellorco, who has a third grade student in the Boise Online School.
Parents shared frustrations, too: like few familiar faces in online classrooms and completed assignments that vanished into thin air.
For three families EdNews spoke with, frustrations mounted to a point they left the Boise Online School.
“We had tears”
Retired grandmother Jacque Rose oversaw her fourth and fifth grade granddaughters’ online coursework for the first three weeks of Boise Online School. Rose liked the teachers and felt they did everything they could to keep her girls engaged with online class.
But tech issues proved insurmountable. Rose’s youngest granddaughter would submit assignments to her teacher, only to have her work disappear and her assignment labeled missing. Her oldest would cry as she got frustrated flipping back and forth between screens to navigate problems.
“For three weeks, there was this frustration level in the house that was just unacceptable,” Rose said. “We had tears, we had anger, it was a really tough couple of weeks.”
Fourth-grader Logan Keys had the same issue with assignments. By the second week of school, his mom Kimberly got an emailed list of seven of Logan’s missing assignments — some of which she had looked at before he turned them in.
“It’s been one giant headache after another,” dad Dale Keys said.
Roberts urged anyone with technology issues to call the district help desk at 208-854-6670.
Frustrated with ongoing technology issues, challenges with the Google learning platform and school organization, both families opted to leave the Boise Online School, unenrolling from the district to start homeschooling instead.
The Keys’ worry whether their decision will cost Logan his place at the local elementary school when he wants to go back. The Boise School District does not turn local students away, but it’s possible that if a student’s neighborhood school reaches enrollment capacity, he or she would have to attend a different school in the district.
Rose said her only regret is that she didn’t start homeschooling from the beginning.
“The benefit of one-on-one (education) outweighs everything else right now,” Rose said.