Brandi Horton — who crafted the sign and set up the picture in a bid for some shred of normalcy — checked her watch: 7:52 a.m., eight minutes until Jay’s first class of the day. She nodded her permission and the 6-year-old, thrilled, pelted around the corner of the house toward the door, yelling, “Let’s goooooooo!”
He was lucky: When he sat down to his iPad at a makeshift workstation moments later, things went off without a hitch. He and Wayne were among thousands of children throughout the state who logged in Tuesday morning for an online return to school that few had ever imagined.
In most school districts in Northern Virginia — Fairfax County Public Schools, Loudoun County Public Schools and Alexandria City Public Schools — virtual school started up without serious issues. But Jay’s school system, Arlington Public Schools, hit some snags, leaving some families unable to log in for much of the day.
In a message to families sent mid-afternoon, Arlington Schools Superintendent Francisco Durán apologized for the “systemwide technical challenges,” which he attributed to “the large volume of traffic” trying to get into virtual classrooms at the same time.
“We believed we had taken all necessary steps to prepare for this,” Durán wrote, but “unfortunately we discovered an additional adjustment was needed.”
The school district had now taken that step, Durán wrote at 2:30 p.m., and he encouraged families to restart their devices so they could try logging in again. He promised that school officials would monitor the situation throughout the day and the rest of the week.
Although Jay had no problems, those impacted included his brother Wayne, who is autistic, nonverbal and was born with a chromosomal deletion. The pandemic has been difficult for him, Brandi Horton said — he quickly developed an unhealthy addiction to screens and is not progressing as much as he would have with in-person learning, although she has been thrilled to see how hard his teachers are trying to reach him.
After 15 minutes or so, the Hortons got Wayne online, although it meant his mother was unable to pay almost any attention to her job; she works from home running communications for a local nonprofit group. Her husband, Tommy, recently switched to working part time — he’s a woodworker — so he can remain at home in the mornings and help Wayne learn online.
“Wayne, say hello,” Tommy Horton prompted again and again Tuesday, sitting close beside his son at the kitchen table. “Wayne, wave back” — and eventually, he did.
Watching, sipping coffee from a red mug, Brandi Horton decided: Her family could make this work. It might be messy, but they would make it work.
The trouble in Arlington came despite frantic preparations, pursued aggressively over the past month: Officials in all four Northern Virginia districts scrambled throughout August to prepare teachers and online platforms. At the top of the priority list was ensuring all families had access to devices and Internet service, the lack of which made learning impossible for many last spring.
Arlington delivered iPads to all of its elementary- and middle-schoolers, and handed out MacBook laptops to high-schoolers. Alexandria distributed thousands of tablets and Chromebooks.
Over the past few months, Fairfax gave out more than 5,000 mobile WiFi devices. Loudoun extended school WiFi to its parking lots, and then invited families to pull up and begin learning in their cars in the fall.
Then there was the “school” part of school: Each district rolled out complex daily schedules, most of which mix real-time with independent learning while mimicking the bell structure of the school day. High-schoolers in Fairfax, for example, will start each day at 8:10 a.m. and end at 2:55 p.m.; elementary-schoolers in Loudoun will learn from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Officials also required teachers to undergo lengthy trainings meant to familiarize them with online learning platforms such as Google Classroom, Microsoft Teams and — inevitably — Zoom.
The question of virtual proficiency was especially fraught in Fairfax County Public Schools, which suffered major technological breakdowns in the spring. The weeks-long fiasco, which left many students unable to log in and subjected virtual classrooms to online harassment and privacy breaches, ultimately led to the resignation of the school system’s top technology official.
“They were hamstrung by the technology,” said Fairfax parent Scott Garrod, adding that it was a lot to ask the school system to pivot from normal school to online class for all 189,000 of its students in mere weeks. “But we’re hopeful there’s a much better chance of things going well this time now that they’ve had all summer to get ready.”
His wife, Suzanne Garrod, said she saw every day how hard her two daughters’ teachers were trying to make it better.
“The teachers, let’s be clear, were great last spring,” she said.
Still, the family felt anxious, so they quelled their feelings by resorting to ritual. On Monday night after dinner, the Garrods held the same dishwashing dance party that they hold every year before the first day of school. Mom, Dad and their two daughters shimmied to a playlist that mixed pop music, the girls’ choice, with oldies — Scott Garrod’s pick.
They were pleasantly surprised when their prep seemed to pan out.
“Totally normal back to school morning,” Suzanne Garrod said. Almost too normal: “[We did have] one kid sleeping in and two girls fighting over a shared bathroom . . .”
In Arlington, high-schooler Abigail Herrada, 16, had also been girding for virtual mess-ups — so she wasn’t surprised by the log-in troubles Tuesday, and managed to surmount them in time to catch most of class. Abigail, her classmates and teacher had attempted a trial run last week, she said, and it did not go well.
“There were some kids who couldn’t use the chat function, some kids’ microphones weren’t working, and some kids couldn’t use the raise-your-hand function,” Herrada said. “They said they fixed it, but I think everyone understands it will be a mess for the first week.”
Another thing people have agreed on, she said, is students at her high school will dress up in “nice clothes,” if only for the first few days. In a group chat she maintains with her best friends — whom she has not seen in person since March — Herrada said everyone has decided they will make an effort throughout the first week.
After that, it will probably go back to “rolling out of bed in a sweatshirt,” Herrada admitted. Why bother looking nice when you’re not actually leaving your bedroom?
Plus, she has more important things to think about. This is her junior year, a critical one for college admissions, and she has crammed her schedule with demanding courses: calculus and physics, as well as a class on religion offered by Northern Virginia Community College.
And she’ll be balancing her academic schedule with her job at Target, which she picked up two months ago — partly to add structure to her days, partly so she could save up for a new computer. That, she said, was definitely worth it.
“It’s the new MacBook; it’s space gray,” Herrada said. “I love it.”
Danielle Thorne, a high school math teacher with Alexandria City Public Schools, also made several big back-to-school purchases: a printer, an extra computer monitor and a free-standing Ikea drawer, which she filled with “all my odds and ends.” Armed with the new furnishings, she converted a corner of her 700-square-foot studio apartment into a functional virtual classroom.
By 2:15 p.m. Tuesday, she was ensconced in that corner, seated at what used to be her kitchen table, and greeting roughly two dozen sophomores, juniors and seniors as they filed — virtually — into their first geometry class of the year. “Hello, hello, everyone,” Thorne said. She shared her screen, navigated to YouTube and began blasting Earth, Wind & Fire’s “September.” One by one, the students popped into class, disembodied heads bobbing to the beat.
Once everyone had arrived, she shut off the music and introduced herself — “This is Geometry, and I am Ms. Thorne” — before posing a warm-up question. Would the high-schoolers rather be invisible for 24 hours, or fly for one full day? Students who preferred invisibility typed “1” into the chat; students who hoped to become airborne typed “2.” (After a flurry of clicking, invisibility won by four votes.)
“This is how we’re going to start every class,” Thorne promised. “With a fun little question. You can expect this every day.”
Then she launched into a list of ground rules: No images of class without her permission. She’d prefer if her students kept their Zoom videos on, so she can get to know them better. And she explained how to use the “raise hand feature” — by clicking a button in the bottom-right corner — before asking everyone to practice. Her last rule: “Don’t do anything on camera you wouldn’t want your grandma to see!”
She wrapped up the day by reviewing the syllabus, the grading policy and giving tips for how to be successful in geometry. There were five of these, and the last one read: “Don’t give up — you got this,” followed by a smiley face.
“This is a weird year,” Thorne told the teenagers. “But really, don’t give up. I’m here to help you.”
For the Reed sisters, the day began in disappointment — with a struggle to access their Arlington Public Schools classrooms — but ended in custard.
“Google and Canvas weren’t talking, so I never got the grammar lesson I was supposed to,” 13-year-old Opal Reed told her mom, Heather Reed, early Tuesday evening, as they sat on concrete steps outside the family’s Arlington home. “And in Art class, my teacher didn’t know what to do, so the whole group just wound up talking about ‘My Little Pony.’ ”
“You were lucky!” interrupted her 9-year-old sister Rosie Reed. “You got on calls. I was trying all morning to get on my calls.”
Heather Reed laughed. The girls and their mom were grouped outside making “cookies-and-cream custard” — “cookies-and-cream” because the sisters decided to crumble an entire pack of Oreo thins into it — using a years-old ice cream maker they had never tried before.
It was a coronavirus-era variation on their post-first-day-of-school tradition: a trip to Baskin-Robbins and a long debrief session over heaps of ice cream. Mom had mixed the custard that morning, following a recipe her husband found online.
“I think it’s pretty thick now,” Opal said, peering into the depths of the machine, which was making a growling noise.
“It’s not going to be completely frozen,” Heather Reed agreed, “like at the store.”
Rosie ladeled the thick slurry, dotted with chunks of Oreos, into three bowls — green for herself, blue for her sister, red for her mother. They slurped.
“Mm,” Heather Reed said. “Make this our new tradition?”
Mouths full, eyes bright, the sisters nodded.