DeVos urges educators to instruct kids remotely

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos Saturday urged states to continue educating students remotely, including those with disabilities who are on individualized education plans.

“We need schools to educate all students out of principle, rather than educate no students out of fear,” said DeVos. “These are challenging times, but we expect schools to rise to the occasion, and the department stands ready to assist you in your efforts.”

DeVos’ announcement follows a nationwide closure of schools amid the growing coronavirus pandemic. Closures have thrust Idaho schools into uncharted instructional territory, with several larger districts not requiring students to complete at-home lesson plans because they can’t guarantee all kids would be served.

  • The 25,000-student Boise School District last week told the Idaho Statesman that administrators can’t guarantee all students would be reached through a digital approach, so it won’t try to reach anyone. “Don’t worry about your math homework. Don’t worry about the schoolwork part of this,” Boise spokesman Ryan Hill said. “We’ll figure out ways to help with this when appropriate. We want families to feel safe and secure.”
  • Blaine County sent a note to teachers Wednesday saying that virtual instruction for students must remain optional and not associated with the district because “there are legal consequences … if we provide school for some, but not all students.”
  • Concerns over access to instruction prompted Oregon leaders to shun shifting to purely online models, the Oregonian reported Thursday.

Idaho’s largest school district, 40,000-student West Ada, said last week that it wouldn’t move instruction online. Spokesman Eric Exline referenced language in the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which requires public schools to provide all students within their boundaries with a “free and appropriate public education.”

The district changed course Saturday, extending school closure through April 3 and announcing that educators are now refining a digital learning plan for students.

Parent feedback and an unforeseen outlook regarding closures as the virus spreads prompted the change of course, Exline told EdNews Monday.

“Our parents expressed a lot of concern about their children’s educations,” he said.

The district will unveil the plan next week, Exline said, adding that it will include “a combination of printed materials, electronic materials, and online resources.”

DeVos made concerns over adherence to federal law a focal point of her announcement.

“To be clear: ensuring compliance with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (Section 504), and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act should not prevent any school from offering educational programs through distance instruction,” she said.

Idaho Superintendent of Public Instruction Sherri Ybarra also stressed continued instruction during a webinar with school districts last week.

“Just closing doors and calling it a day is not going to fly with the public or with the Legislature,” Ybarra said. “You have to have a plan for continuing to educate children.”

Idaho districts have been prepping for monumental online transitions amid widespread closures. The Nampa School District will bring online learning to its roughly 14,000 students come March 31. Some 1,700 of those kids are on IEPs; about half qualify for federal free or reduced-price lunch, one measure of poverty.

The decision followed legal advice from an attorney, Nampa spokeswoman Kathleen Tuck told EdNews. Tuck provided assurances to local families:

  • Nampa has electronic devices for all of its students.
  • Administrators are confident the approach can be shaped to individual needs, including for students on IEPs.
  • The district is addressing Internet-connectivity roadblocks for some families by turning schools into hotspots and updating its Facebook page with softened Internet-eligibility requirements amid the pandemic.

Nampa High School Principal Chance Whitmore told EdNews Saturday that he’s aware of the challenges larger districts and schools face in taking instruction online. Prior to closing down over a week ago, Whitmore said he and other leaders spent part of the day handing out hotspot devices to students without home Internet access.

“That doesn’t do enough, but that’s 14 kids we know have access,” Whitmore said.

Special education teachers at Nampa High will also extend instruction beyond an online framework alone, Whitmore added, including delivering instructional packets to the homes of some students with special needs.

“We want what’s best for our students, and we’re going to work hard to make sure they get it,” Whitmore said.

The Idaho Falls and Bonneville school districts have also announced forthcoming shifts to online models, though plans are still being finalized, the districts say. The Pocatello-Chubbuck district has provided online resources to families but told EdNews Friday that leaders are still assessing the situation.

At least a dozen smaller charter schools have also announced plans to move to online instruction.

Check out our coronavirus timeline of events.

More reading: DeVos said Friday that states will have flexibility to cancel 2019-20 standardized tests in light of the pandemic. 

Devin Bodkin

About Devin Bodkin

Reporter Devin Bodkin covers education issues in East Idaho. He is a former high school English teacher who specializes in stories about charter schools and educating students who live in poverty. He is a 2019 Solutions Journalism Network fellow and the Idaho Press Club's 2019 print reporter of the year. Follow Devin on Twitter @dsbodkin. He can be reached by email at [email protected].

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