Survey: More than 175,000 Idaho kids lack remote learning devices

Over half of Idaho’s K-12 students don’t have a remote learning device, according to information school administrators submitted to the State Board of Education.

The State Board’s “Digital Divide” survey, which has so far gathered device and internet accessibility projections from administrators in 145 of 178 Idaho school districts and charter schools, suggests that 176,456 Idaho students don’t have a device. To put that number into perspective, the state’s enrollment count for the 2019-20 school year was 312,011, according to the State Department of Education.

Other highlights include claims that 28,521 students and 2,739 teachers lack Internet connectivity and that 12,944 teachers don’t have a device.

Some administrators said nearly all of their students would need a device. Bear Lake School District put its number at 1,042, though enrollment there is just 1,175, according to the most recent state tally. Blaine County reported a need for 3,690 devices, including 400 for teachers, though enrollment their is just 3,391.

Districts with large enrollments also reported heavy demand for devices — and in at least one case, a need for more devices than students. The Bonneville School District, which last year enrolled some 13,300 students, reported a need for 13,700 devices for students and 675 for teachers. The 25,400-student Boise School District set its need for devices at an even 11,000 for students and 1,500 for teachers.

State Board spokesman Mike Keckler told Idaho Education News that the survey was non-scientific and “intended to get a sense of the need across the state.”

“It will not be used to determine who gets what,” Keckler said.

The State Board’s chief planning and policy officer, Tracie Bent, pointed Tuesday to $30 million in Federal CARES Act funding earmarked by Gov. Brad Little’s Coronavirus Financial Advisory Committee to help close the digital divide. Funds will be allocated based on grant applications submitted by districts and charters to the State Department of Education.

Local K-12 leaders will be able to apply for a portion of the money to provide technology, improve Internet accessibility or implement professional development for remote learning — “Whatever they need locally,” Bent said.

A digital divide workgroup is still determining when districts and charters can start applying.

“We are working as fast as we can,” Bent added.

Device and accessibility shortfalls have been a lingering issue for local school leaders charged with determining what a return to school will look like this fall. The survey accompanies a continued rise in coronavirus cases across Idaho — and uncertainty about whether districts and charters will let kids back in the classroom, adopt remote learning models or implement combinations of the two in the coming months.

Districts and charters across the state are still debating what to do, though some plans are emerging. Idaho’s two largest districts, Boise and West Ada, have tentative reopening plans featuring in-person and remote learning options. At least two East Idaho districts are planning for full face-to-face instruction come fall.

Still, a lack of access for many students has prompted efforts to provide more devices and improve Internet connectivity. Idaho Business for Education is spearheading an effort to get Internet hotspots and used laptops to Idaho students who lack the technology. Click here for more on how you can help.

Click here for the full Digital Divide survey.

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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