On Monday, the 25,500 students that make up one of Idaho’s largest school districts will wake up, turn on their computers and “return” to school — that is, if they have a computer.

As the Boise School District awaits a shipment of 13,000 Chromebooks set to arrive sometime in the next week, roughly 39% of the district’s students are left without the computers they were promised in June.

Right now, the district has 15,600 Chromebooks on hand, district spokesperson Dan Hollar said. About half of those were given out in the spring to students without at-home devices, and the district began distributing the remaining 7,000 on Wednesday.

The roughly 9,900 students who haven’t received Chromebooks yet can expect them “in a matter of days,” Hollar said. The shipment of 13,000 computers has already arrived on U.S. soil.

A recent study from the State Board of Education found that over half the K-12 students in Idaho do not have access to a remote learning device at home.

Hollar declined to answer questions about which day the computers would arrive and what students who do not have access to a device should do the first day of school, saying the district was “knee deep” in device distribution.

The district is confident that all students who expressed a need for a computer have one, Hollar said Tuesday. All district students eventually are expected to have district-supplied devices, but orders have been delayed nationwide, Hollar said.

“All of our energy right now is on the device deployments, so we’re completely engrossed in that, as we should be,” Hollar said. “Our goal is providing a device for each of our students and ensuring that they can learn that first day of school.”

Parents report lapses in district communication

Under the district’s distribution plan, students can pick up Chromebooks from their neighborhood schools. But parents say communication from local schools and from the district on a number of topics — from computer supply, to whether students can use devices other than the district-issued Chromebooks for schoolwork, to accessing district-promised internet hotspots — has been confusing to follow.

Last Monday, parents of students enrolled at East Junior High received an email saying Chromebooks would be distributed beginning Wednesday. This email was followed by one Thursday, saying deployment would be paused until further notice due to delayed shipments and an increase in demand. Later Thursday, another email went out saying deployment was actually not paused, and would continue Friday.

Parents from Les Bois Junior High reported a similar situation. An email from the school Wednesday said computer distribution was paused for the day, and told parents they would be notified of the next deployment date when the school restocked. A day later, an email from Hollar informed parents the school had overlooked 150 Chromebooks it had on hand, and said deployment would continue.

“If a family does show up and we do not have a device to give them, we will take down their information and let them know we will be reshuffling our district inventory and will contact them when a device is available for pickup,” the email said.

At a school board meeting Thursday, Boise Schools area director Teri Thaemert said the district is reshuffling roughly 1,000 Chromebooks from schools that received too many computers to schools that are short.

Melissa Davlin, whose son is enrolled in the Boise Online School for the semester, characterized communication from the district as “radio silence.” The online school is a fully remote program the district offered as an alternative to neighborhood schools, which plan to welcome students back into classrooms in-person eventually.

Davlin, a reporter for Idaho Public Television who spoke in her capacity as a parent, needs her computer for work. So when she hadn’t received an email by Thursday morning telling her when to pick up her son’s Chromebook, she asked her Twitter followers if anyone else was having a similar experience.

At her followers’ prompting, she contacted the principal of her local school. The principal said she thought Online School teachers were supposed to contact Online School parents about computer distribution. Half an hour later, all Online School parents whose students were formerly enrolled in the neighborhood school got an email from the principal specifying that the devices were available for pickup.

Davlin was eventually able to pick up her son’s device, but she worried about parents without the resources and following she has as a reporter.

“If it weren’t for the platform and the reach that I have, because of my job, how many of those communication issues wouldn’t have been exposed until it was too late to fix them and get those devices?” she asked. “Regardless of what happens, my kid will be fine. Sharing a laptop wouldn’t be a great setup, but we would be fine. But what about the parents who don’t have the same connections that I have, as far as being able to reach somebody at the district or being able to network with other parents?”

After communication from neighborhood schools encouraged all students to pick up Chromebooks — even if they had a personal computer available — parents were also confused about whether their children could choose to use their own devices. Hollar said students are able to use devices they already have at home, as long as the device has a camera and fits the “specs” of the Chromebook model the district has ordered.

Hotspot delays prompt concerns about equity, accessibility

Many students in the district need more than just a Chromebook to get them to class on Monday — some without reliable internet access have yet to receive the district-issued hotspots they signed up for. There are 28,521 students and 2,739 teachers in Idaho without internet connectivity, according to the State Board’s survey.

Hollar said the district is planning to supplement the 500 internet hotspots it distributed in the spring for students without reliable internet access at home.

“We distributed many hotspots last spring and will continue to do that if there’s a need for that as well,” Hollar said.

Riverglen Junior High Principal Deborah Watts told parents in an email on Friday that a shipment was delayed, and wrote she expected the hotspots to arrive in the next week.

A similar Friday email from Gale Zickefoose, principal of Shadow Hills Elementary School, told parents without reliable internet access to use the school’s parking lot for internet. First graders at Shadow Hills will need an internet connection to participate in Monday’s math class, science class, reading period, handwriting practice and “read aloud,” according to an email obtained by the Statesman.

“There are picnic tables near the school and some shady areas near the school at different points of the day,” Zickefoose wrote, “If you are on campus, you need to be present with your child and you need to observe social/physical distancing and (face) mask protocols.”

Davlin worried that communication issues and delay in Chromebook distribution would fall hardest on those for whom English is a second language. Over 3,500 students in the district have a non-English speaking background.

A study from the Alliance for Excellent Education found that nearly 40% of Latino households in Idaho didn’t have high-speed internet access as of 2018.

“If they’re having trouble getting basic communication out to parents in one language, what are the efforts for the families who don’t speak English fluently as a first language?” she asked.

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Julia Frankel is a summer reporting intern for the Idaho Statesman and a student at Pomona College.

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