She styled her hair and dressed nicely, in jeans and a long-sleeved white sweater, for the first time in weeks. She forwent her usual bagel for a special breakfast of Nutella-and-banana toast. She sat down at her laptop, pulled out a notebook and logged in.
The first message arrived 30 minutes into AP Environmental Science.
“F--- you, yiu smell like gay,” someone whose username contained several expletives wrote in a class group chat. Another user joined and selected a username that included the n-word. Someone named “lil uzi #6” lamented that the coronavirus quarantine prevented sexual activity during lunch break.
Surovell reached for her buzzing phone: “What was that,” a classmate had texted.
“I can’t believe this,” another replied.
“I’m furious,” wrote Surovell, 17.
It was just the beginning of a disastrous rollout of online education for Fairfax schools, whose 189,000 students in Northern Virginia constitute one of the largest districts in the nation. The week started when parents and students throughout the system struggled to log in to Blackboard, the schools’ virtual learning platform. Those technical problems persisted Wednesday, the second day of distance learning — and, in combination with online misbehavior, ultimately forced administrators to cancel school entirely for the rest of the week.
Of those who did manage to access virtual class on Tuesday, many were met with the kind of content that has been marring online learning in high schools, colleges and universities around the country. Fairfax teachers and students described anonymous users disrupting group chats with obscenities, racism, homophobia and loud, explicit music.
In one German class, users joined the group chat and named themselves “I LOVE ADOLF HITLER” and “OVEN SURVIVOR #2,” according to images obtained by The Washington Post.
School officials are aware of disruptive behavior by some online participants, spokeswoman Lucy Caldwell said in a statement, and are investigating. Some perpetrators have been identified as students, Caldwell said, but others may have come from outside the school system because the online setup Tuesday allowed anyone with the link to gain entry to Fairfax virtual classrooms.
Late Wednesday, superintendent Scott Brabrand emailed Fairfax families to announce he was pausing online school until Monday to allow officials time to address “a software issue” that was causing connectivity problems, as well as train teachers on software upgrades.
Brabrand said staffers worked for weeks to debut the Blackboard learning program, and that there had been no indication the system would be “unable to handle the volume of participating users or … susceptible to the security issues that many of our schools encountered.”
But “as you know,” he wrote, “the start of distance learning has not gone as smoothly as hoped.”
The division is working with Blackboard to add “enhanced security features.” Caldwell said the cancellation of school will also give teachers more time to “make security modifications” to their individual Blackboard accounts.
The school district “apologizes for any disruptive behaviors students may have seen or heard,” Caldwell said in the statement. “While it has been determined that these incidents were very limited in scope, [Fairfax County Public Schools] does not want even one student to have such an experience.”
Caldwell declined to say how widespread the misbehavior was, beyond noting that it was “a small number” of bad actors. Becca Ferrick, a Fairfax schools librarian and president of the Association of Fairfax Professional Educators, said her email inbox, social media accounts and phone have pinged almost constantly with reports from teachers about harassment . She has heard accounts that some students displayed drug paraphernalia or weapons during video calls.
“Every time I think I’ve heard the last, I just keep getting more and more of these horrible updates,” Ferrick said in a phone interview.
Like all Virginia school systems, Fairfax is closed through the end of the 2020 academic year. In the days after campus first closed on March 13, Fairfax officials announced plans to offer optional “continuity of learning” activities — which would not include new material — through the start of its spring break on April 6.
In late March, Brabrand debuted the district’s finalized “Distance Learning Plan,” which mandated that students start school again on April 14. Under the guidelines, students would learn fresh material through a combination of paper instructional packets, video sessions with teachers and assignments posted to Blackboard.
Following Virginia Department of Education guidance, school is not required, out of concern for families who lack access to technology such as computers and the Internet.
From the start, Ferrick’s association — which represents licensed educators in the system and has about 1,800 members — pushed for an entirely “asynchronous” online learning plan, meaning teachers would not offer live instruction but instead publish prerecorded lessons online and ask students to complete assignments on their own time.
Some teachers worried, Ferrick said, that live instruction could be hacked into and disrupted — exactly as happened on Tuesday.
“I wish we were living in a different society and time where we could trust young people to interact online in a better manner,” Ferrick said, “but that’s not the reality.”
Robb Watters, parent to an eighth-grader and a second-grader in Fairfax, said neither of his children experienced online harassment when they logged in to school yesterday. But they barely managed to log in at all, he said.
A lobbyist who is working from his home in Great Falls, Watters took time away from his job Tuesday morning to help his second-grader enter her virtual classroom. First, he attempted to sign in from an iPad, only to be denied access twice and then see the video stream freeze. He switched to a laptop and managed to get online just before his daughter’s first class ended at 9:30.
“And my children live in a house with high-speed Internet and have personal devices,” Watters said. “I cannot imagine what this is like for children who do not have that.”
As her AP Environmental Science class neared its end Tuesday, Surovell kept her eyes on her teacher’s face — away from the chat that kept filling with awful comments.
But he was hard to watch, too. Although he continued teaching and refused to acknowledge the intruders, he kept grimacing.
“To see him look so defeated was very difficult,” Surovell said. “And I was afraid. To see language used like that in classrooms is really scary.”
The vulgar outbursts stopped only when class did. Surovell burst from her room to tell her parents. They were furious but agreed that she should nonetheless return for her afternoon classes: AP Literature at 12:15, followed by Latin at 1:30.
This time, though, Surovell left the door open. If it happened again, she wanted to be able to run and tell her mother immediately.