Analysis: Boise’s school year begins, with a rocky online rollout

You know how frustrating it can be to track an online order? You know that stress of back-to-school shopping?

The Boise School District has you beat.

The district ordered 13,000 Chromebooks in May, hoping to have the student-friendly computing devices in hand weeks ago. A truck is expected to roll in to district headquarters Friday morning, delivering 57 pallets of Chromebooks. Yes, that sounds like a lot of Chromebooks. Maybe it’s the whole 13,000. Maybe it isn’t.

“No matter how many times we ask the question, nobody can confirm or deny,” said David Roberts, the district’s IT administrator.

Idaho schools faced a monumentally tough job in March, shifting to online learning as the state reported its first coronavirus cases. As it turns out, it’s still tough to shift into online learning, even with a summer to prepare.

But then again, that isn’t news to Boise teachers, students or parents, who are riding the uneven transition this week.

Classes began Monday, with all of Boise’s 25,000 students working from home. Online learning will continue until at least Sept. 8. District officials hope to reopen school buildings after Labor Day, but that hinges on coronavirus case numbers, which have spiked in the Boise area throughout the summer. Pointing to those numbers, local health district officials have said Boise schools might not be able to safely reopen in full, recommending a year of online instruction or a hybrid that includes some face-to-face learning.

In other words, students in the state’s second-largest district are looking at a lot of virtual class time. There’s no way around it.

By making the move to a “one-to-one” computer technology model, the Boise district hoped to prepare for anything the pandemic had in store. By having a dedicated device for every student, Boise hopes to avoid trying to distribute equipment based on need. And the district wants every student on similar devices, streamlining tech support.

Boise has handed out about 16,000 Chromebooks already, this spring and summer. The district says it has met every request for a device this school year.

But to launch a true one-to-one program, and maintain a stockpile of devices, the district used $2.7 million of local dollars and federal coronavirus aid to order 13,000 new devices. Originally, these devices were supposed to arrive in late June or early July. Then, the delivery date slid back to early August.

On Friday, a shipment of Boise-bound Chromebooks arrived at Los Angeles International Airport. The shipment came from Asia, and took several days to clear customs. The Chromebooks were ready to roll Wednesday, but the trucking company couldn’t find a driver.

“Every step of the way was a fun delay,” Roberts said.

In fairness, Boise isn’t the only district struggling with a tech rollout — across the country, or even in the Treasure Valley.

The West Ada School District has ordered 11,750 student devices. Nearly half should be in hand by Friday, and the rest should arrive next week, spokeswoman Char Jackson said Wednesday. An additional 2,650 replacement devices for staffers should begin arriving next week — which will free up devices for students.

But at least West Ada isn’t in session yet. Trustees delayed the first day of school to Sept. 8.

Not so in Boise — where trustees kept the 2020-21 calendar intact, and schools opened their doors (virtually) with tempered expectations. The goal, as in any opening week, was just to iron out procedures.

“That first week is really going to be about us trying to make sure everybody can log on, everybody can see what they need to see, they know who to turn in assignments, they know how to watch videos,” Superintendent Coby Dennis said during a Boise Metro Chamber of Commerce online panel discussion last week.

But that’s going to change, and soon. The school day will shift from orientation to education — for the students working from home full-time for now, and for the 4,600 students enrolled long-term in Boise’s new online school. And the district is promising to improve on this spring’s online learning plans, rushed out with little lead time.

“Expectations are higher,” spokesman Dan Hollar said.

The Chromebook delivery delays haven’t affected the learning process so far, Roberts and Hollar said Thursday. But by the same token, there’s no telling how long it will take to get the new Chromebooks into the hands of students — once they arrive in Boise, that is. The district will turn its training center into a makeshift warehouse, but as Roberts noted, his team has never had to prepare so many devices for students in one shot.

While all of that might be understandable, it also might be no consolation to parents who are sharing a computer with their kids, or are trying to sync their home device with the district’s learning network. And the timing isn’t ideal, because the Boise district hasn’t exactly Augusted well.

On Aug. 3, the school board’s virtual public hearing crashed — frustrating parents and patrons as they tried to testify and listin in, and forcing trustees to delay a decision on the fall reopen by 24 hours. Days later, broke the story that the district blocked, then unblocked, dozens of people from its public Twitter account, a First Amendment violation. Then, last week, the district said it would send out 28,000 corrected absentee ballots for its Sept. 1 election, after finding a printing error on return envelopes.

Not a great month. Not that there’s ever an easy time to move quickly from face-to-face school to online learning.

We saw that in March.

We’re seeing it again in August.

And in Boise, district officials are hoping parents and patrons will bear with them.

“We’re looking for some understanding and some patience as we get going,” Hollar said.

Each week, Kevin Richert writes an analysis on education policy and education politics. Look for it every Thursday.

Kevin Richert

Kevin Richert

Senior reporter and blogger Kevin Richert specializes in education politics and education policy. He has more than 30 years of experience in Idaho journalism. He is a frequent guest on "Idaho Reports" on Idaho Public Television and "Idaho Matters" on Boise State Public Radio. Follow Kevin on Twitter: @KevinRichert. He can be reached at [email protected]

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