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Failed tech, missed warnings: How Fairfax schools’ online learning debut went sideways

Fairfax County Public Schools’ remote learning was halted this past week after the system failed and was marred by disruptive behavior. (Fairfax County Public Schools)
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As schools across America, shut down by the novel coronavirus, scrambled to kick-start online learning, one of the largest and best-ranking school systems in the nation took its time.

Fairfax County Public Schools, in Northern Virginia, waited four weeks, including a week of spring break, before launching virtual school for its 189,000 students. It finally started on Tuesday, when teachers and children sat before screens to embark on a plan the superintendent promised would allow students “to continue learning . . . while being mindful of their health and wellness.”

The trouble started immediately, as many students and teachers found it impossible to log on. For some who could get online, things only got worse: Classes were hijacked by racist, homophobic and obscene language. Students appeared on screen naked or flashed weapons.

Fairfax canceled school for the rest of the week. In the days since, teachers and families have demanded to know how and why things went so wrong.

“Our families patiently waited for us to roll out this distance learning,” said Fairfax County School Board member Megan McLaughlin. “What happened this week — it just never should have happened. There’s going to be a great deal more of extensive review by this board of why and how it did happen.”

Interviews with more than a dozen Fairfax employees and families suggest initial answers: Needed technology updates were neglected for more than a year. Basic privacy features were ignored. And teachers were left adrift with scant guidance.

The school system is working to fix technical problems and enhance security measures, said spokeswoman Lucy Caldwell, and hopes to relaunch school on Monday.

“The challenge of preparing online learning for the entire division was an effort to a level that no one could have anticipated,” Caldwell said. “No one predicted a pandemic.”

But some say irreparable damage has been done.

“They were relying on us to at least bring some semblance of order and reliability in this covid crisis,” McLaughlin said, “and we fell far short as a school system.”

'We trusted our vendor'

Soon after Gov. Ralph Northam (D) ordered schools closed on March 13, Fairfax teachers began clamoring for ways to reach their students.

“From the get-go, they were grasping at the fastest and easiest way to get back in touch,” said Becca Ferrick, president of the Association of Fairfax Professional Educators, which represents 1,800 educators.

Some delays were understandable. The Virginia Department of Education had recommended districts refrain from grading or requiring schoolwork, in an effort to allay concerns about students having unequal access to resources. Some employees spent the first part of the closure setting up meal distribution sites. Others were intent on delivering devices and Internet access to families.

“We’re dealing with a pandemic, which is a little bit more important than dealing with education,” said Kimberly Adams, president of the 4,000-strong Fairfaxa Education Association. “At least for a bit there.”

But teachers said they were given little to do, and almost no guidance, for the first week after schools closed. Some tried to contact children by emailing and calling. The second week of the closure brought a handful of staff meetings. By the third week, teachers were taking brief trainings on how to use the video platform offered by Blackboard, an education technology company that Fairfax has contracted for about two decades.

The fourth week was spring break.

One teacher described the past month as “just twiddling our thumbs, in all honesty.” Another called it “sitting around trying to come up with a plan ourselves.”

In staff meetings held in late March, teachers suggested using programs such as Zoom to facilitate face time with students, according to educators, many of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid retribution. But those ideas were shot down by higher-ups, who cited concerns about security.

That anxiety was well-founded: Schools across the country have fallen prey to “Zoom bombing,” a phenomenon in which anonymous users disrupt online classes with hateful rhetoric or sexually explicit images. Nonetheless, Zoom and popular platforms like it had helped school districts, businesses and even families get connected quickly during a time of upheaval.

Fairfax settled on a solution many were less excited about: online learning tools offered by Blackboard. Caldwell said the division has a contract with Blackboard for $2.6 million in 2020, which includes an extra $150,000 per month that the division agreed to pay the firm during the shutdown.

In interviews, teachers described Blackboard as a lumbering program that they found more difficult than other technologies and more likely to malfunction. The school district was planning to switch to another online platform, Schoology, in 2021, Caldwell said.

Ahead of that, Fairfax teachers had begun relying on Google Classroom, an online platform they saw as more user-friendly and accessible. Many were caught flat-footed by the sudden reversion to Blackboard.

Making matters worse: Fairfax County’s version of Blackboard technology was outdated. The school district failed to implement seven updates over the past roughly 20 months, officials admitted during a virtual school board meeting on Thursday.

The missed updates led to log-in struggles this past week and to glitches such as poor audio or frozen video, Blackboard Chief Product Officer Tim Tomlinson said in an interview. Fifty-thousand users tried to log in simultaneously on Tuesday — less than a third of the district’s total enrollment, but still too much for Fairfax’s outdated system, Tomlinson said. Blackboard and Fairfax did not run, or even consider running, a capacity test ahead of the rollout, Tomlinson said. He said it’s “standard practice” not to.

Blackboard and Fairfax spent this past week trading blame for the meltdown.

Tomlinson said at the board meeting that the company publicizes its updates, which are included in the base contract, to clients several times a year via email. Blackboard also publishes updates on a customer support portal, and an employee who acts as liaison to the Fairfax system flagged the updates, Tomlinson said. A “growing majority” of Blackboard’s clients have opted for a system that installs updates automatically, Tomlinson noted, but not Fairfax.

In an interview, Tomlinson said Blackboard has worked over the past weeks to debut hundreds of online learning programs for other schools. Some have seen technical glitches, usually resolved in hours or minutes.

Fairfax, he said, is an anomaly.

“In my mind, the primary difference . . . is that unfortunately Fairfax went into this situation running a very old version of our product,” he said. “They’re just not getting the benefit of our best and most current work.”

But at the board meeting, Maribeth Luftglass, assistant superintendent of the Fairfax Department of Information Technology, interjected shortly after Tomlinson spoke.

“In no way, shape or form did anybody at Blackboard inform [Fairfax County Public Schools] that those [updates] were associated with performance and that they needed to be done prior to distance learning,” Luftglass said. She called the Blackboard upgrade process “very challenging.”

Later in the meeting, Superintendent Scott Brabrand said, “I honestly, as superintendent, didn’t know every detail about how software is updated, how often it is.” He said he would look into the matter and give more information to the board — as part of a requested “Lessons Learned” report — in July.

“We trusted our vendor. . . . They are well aware of our volume of users,” said Caldwell, the district spokeswoman. “In hindsight, we should have done more testing.”

'Incredibly embarrassing'

For many in Fairfax, the first day of distance learning quickly descended into chaos.

One AP Environmental Science class group chat filled with messages such as, “F--- you, yiu smell like gay.” Users joined a German class populated with usernames including “I LOVE ADOLF HITLER” and “OVEN SURVIVOR #2.”

Adams, of the Fairfax Education Association, said she heard reports of users exposing their genitals and students forming private group chats to bully peers.

One 10th-grade teacher recounted a typical fiasco: Fifteen minutes in, someone entered his virtual classroom with a username including the n-word. The teacher removed the user, but the person kept rejoining.

The teacher tried to keep the lesson going but lost hope when the user began blaring loud music with obscene lyrics.

“It was incredibly embarrassing,” the teacher said. “As a teacher, it’s all about showing your students you have things under control.”

“If you don’t have any control,” he said, “how are you supposed to teach?”

The school system has identified several students as perpetrators of the misconduct, Caldwell said. Officials are investigating.

Teachers and officials say the trouble stemmed from the use of “guest links,” which allowed anyone with the link to get inside Fairfax’s virtual classrooms. A simple privacy tool could have required students to authenticate their identities before joining, Tomlinson said. It’s free and has been offered for years by Blackboard, and it was mentioned to Fairfax officials as part of Blackboard’s “best practices,” Tomlinson said.

Although the disruptions have drawn most of the attention, teachers also say Fairfax exposed students to privacy breaches — and that those, too, were avoidable. Especially because some teachers saw them coming.

Adams said teachers started sharing concerns about privacy before spring break. Would students take screen shots of them with something in their teeth, or photoshop their faces onto compromising pictures?

On the eve of distance learning, teachers noticed something else they found troublesome: They’d been told to tape all video classes. When they played the recordings back, the videos included students’ full names in a group chat.

“There are laws protecting students from being recorded inside the classroom,” a fifth-grade teacher said. “There were massive student privacy holes happening.”

This past Monday, a teacher work day, some flagged the recording issue and were told higher-ups would “get back” to them, the fifth-grade teacher said. On Tuesday, class launched with the recording feature intact.

Avoiding this also required a fix that was free and included in Blackboard’s best practices, according to Tomlinson. Asked why Fairfax didn’t implement the safety measures, Caldwell pointed to the district’s “long history” of using Blackboard software successfully, without security breaches.

“Therefore,” she said, “we failed to ensure that all staff were trained in the process that would provide the heightened security as we entered the large-scale rollout.”

After classes were canceled, teachers underwent another training, learning how to employ the previously overlooked features.

Under the new setup, video recordings of classes automatically remove students’ names from group chats, and students have to authenticate their identities to log on. Blackboard has also separately made the missed updates and is testing them, Tomlinson said.

The district hopes to resume online learning Monday but isn’t making promises. “Truthfully, we are not 100 percent confident,” Caldwell said. “But we’re doing our best.”

Anna Naydonov, parent to a seventh-grader and an eighth-grader, said she has given up on the school system. Instead, she’s spending hundreds of dollars each week on tutors: for violin, for math, for Russian. She tries to help her children as she works from home, taking phone calls and assigning essays simultaneously.

She knows she is more fortunate than other families. She does not know how much longer she can keep going.

“I can’t imagine,” Naydonov said, “if we’re not back in September.”

Correction: This article has been corrected to say that Caldwell, not Tomlinson, said the division has a contract with Blackboard for $2.6 million in 2020.