Virtual chaos: Technical problems put Boise’s school decision on hold

A much-anticipated meeting on the Boise School District’s fall education plans collapsed into virtual chaos Monday night.

Trustees were supposed to meet over a live stream, allowing dozens of patrons to testify and an unknown number of Boiseans to watch the debate remotely. But the stream never worked. After about 45 minutes of delays and radio silence, the district called off Monday night’s meeting, rescheduling the meeting for 6:30 p.m. Tuesday.

That means Idaho’s two largest school districts could decide the fate of fall classes within hours of each other. The West Ada School District scheduled a 2 p.m. meeting to decide on its fall plans.

For Boise — and its staff, and the parents of 25,000 students — time is particularly tight. Classes are slated to begin on Aug. 17. (West Ada’s first day is scheduled for Aug. 27.)

But for Boise parents seeking clarity, just two weeks before the first day of classes, Monday night yielded only confusion.

One error message from the start of Monday’s ill-fated Boise School Board meeting …

The 5:30 p.m. meeting was delayed from the outset, as the district’s meeting live stream locked out viewers and speakers alike. Idaho Education News reporters received a variety of error messages: one saying the stream was “not available to your organization,” another saying the meeting was full and a third saying a request to enter the meeting had been denied.

The district tried to keep frustrated patrons and parents in the loop via Twitter.

“We hope to have the issues with our live stream worked out shortly,” the district tweeted at 5:41 p.m.

… and a second error message from later in the meeting.

The next tweet came 45 minutes later: “Due to technical difficulties, today’s 5:30 pm Boise School Board virtual meeting has been rescheduled to tomorrow, Tues., August 4th at 6:30 p.m.”

Trustees have blocked off four hours for Tuesday’s rescheduled meeting, just as they had for Monday’s ill-fated meeting. The agenda includes presentations on the fall plans from district administration and a board subcommittee, and 90 minutes for public testimony. Testimony will be limited to three minutes per speaker.

The district had taken written testimony, but that deadline ended at noon Monday.

Tuesday’s hearing could culminate an emotional summer-long debate over fall instruction in the state’s second largest school district — as administrators weigh a desire to return to face-to-face learning against a proliferation of coronavirus cases in the state’s capital city.

On June 18, Boise trustees approved a reopening plan that would allow its students to return to school — or allow parents to enroll their kids in a district online school. That decision came on the heels of a survey, in which 70 percent of parents said they would be comfortable sending their children back to school, if they believed the district had taken reasonable safety precautions.

But almost immediately after the announcement, case numbers began to skyrocket in the Treasure Valley, one of the state’s coronavirus hot zones. As of Monday afternoon, Ada County reported 8,069 confirmed or probable coronavirus cases, nearly an eightfold increase since June 18.

On Monday, Central District Health issued its first weekly status report on coronavirus outbreaks and school opening. The news was grim. Based on the weekly numbers, the district said it would recommend closing schools and shifting to online instruction in Ada County.

And as case numbers have grown, so too has enrollment in Boise’s online school. Enrollment exceeded 3,200 students last week — representing more than one tenth of the district’s overall enrollment. The signup deadline is Friday.

While fall plans in Boise and West Ada remain up in the air, several other Treasure Valley districts are opening the year with either online learning or a hybrid of face-to-face and online instruction:

  • Nampa will delay the start of its school year to Aug. 24 and open completely online.
  • Caldwell opted for a hybrid model, and also pushed back its opening date. Students will begin their school year Aug. 27 or 28.
  • Kuna will use a hybrid model at least through Sept. 30. Classes begin Aug. 27.
  • Vallivue is likely to open on Aug. 19 using a hybrid model, Superintendent Pat Charlton said. Monday would be an e-learning day for all students. Kindergarten through fifth-grade students would attend school Tuesday through Friday. Sixth- through 12th-grade students would attend school and work from home Tuesday through Friday, using an alternating A/B schedule. Trustees will make a final decision next week.

Check back Tuesday for coverage of the West Ada and Boise meetings.

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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