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Fairfax temporarily cancels face-to-face video instruction, retains law firm to review botched debut of online learning

The website for Fairfax County Public Schools’ remote learning portal, which continued to have problems Monday. (Fairfax County Public Schools)

Fairfax County Public Schools is canceling face-to-face virtual instruction for now and launching an outside review of its distance learning, as a second attempt to launch online offerings sputtered Monday morning and as new evidence emerged that employees warned of possible technical troubles weeks ago.

After abruptly canceling online learning last week, Fairfax, one of the country’s largest school districts, tried again Monday morning. But parents, teachers and students reported difficulties logging in to Blackboard, the district’s virtual learning platform. For some who could get online, class materials took too long to load, audio would not play or video froze repeatedly.

In a midday message to families, Fairfax administrators said the 189,000-student school district would continue “with distance learning today despite the continuing problems.” The message noted that system updates implemented by Blackboard over the weekend had not corrected technical problems.

In a statement, Blackboard said that it was “working around the clock” to fix the problems and that the system is “currently working properly.”

But late Monday, Schools Superintendent Scott Brabrand wrote in a message to families that the district would “move away from Blackboard . . . as a tool for face to face instruction.” He said students and teachers would continue to use the technology to “access instructional resources and supports.”

Brabrand also said he had retained a law firm, Hunton Andrews Kurth LLP, to conduct a “comprehensive, outside review” of how Fairfax rolled out distance learning. The firm, which specializes in information technology and cybersecurity, is slated to deliver a report within the next few weeks.

In addition, the superintendent said he has formed a three-member advisory council to help resolve “distance learning challenges.” The council will examine best practices in the private sector, as well as suggest improved technology, Brabrand wrote.

In the immediate future, Fairfax teachers will refrain from real-time video instruction, and use tools such as Google Classroom, prerecorded videos and learning packets, Brabrand wrote. He said the system is working to replace the live instruction feature previously provided through Blackboard.

“Teachers will contact students over the next several days about virtual learning opportunities and the platform that will be used,” Brabrand wrote. He added he recognizes that the ongoing stumbles are “frustrating and disappointing for everyone.”

The debacle followed a disastrous debut of online school last week.

That ended in massive technological troubles, possible privacy breaches and online harassment of students and teachers, which led Fairfax to cancel school for several days.

On Sunday evening, a group of technology specialists sent a letter to the Fairfax County School Board that included emails, documents and screen shots proving they had repeatedly raised the alarm about technological, safety and security concerns in the weeks before the rollout.

A particular problem last week was the use of guest links, which allowed anyone to get inside Fairfax virtual lessons, and the fact that students could use any name they chose when they entered classrooms, leading some to choose obscene or racist usernames.

Read the letter from the technology specialists

“Major, major issues with inappropriate names as students enter [virtual classrooms],” a technology specialist posted in an internal forum in late March, almost three weeks before Fairfax launched online learning as school districts closed in response to the coronavirus pandemic. “And, with a guest link, really anyone can enter.”

Also on Sunday, the Fairfax Education Association, which represents 4,000 educators in the school system, wrote to the school board and Brabrand demanding a public apology to the district’s technology employees, known as “School Based Technology Specialists,” or SBTs. The employees put in long hours over the past month to debut online learning, association President Kimberly Adams wrote, but their hard work was belittled during a School Board meeting last week, during which higher-ups attempted to cast blame on the specialists.

“We know that — despite claims otherwise — SBTs operated under the guidance and provisions laid out by upper [Fairfax County Public Schools] leadership,” Adams wrote, “and are in no way responsible for the complete fiasco that occurred during the first week of distance learning.”

In addition to a public apology from Department of Information Technology Assistant Superintendent Maribeth Luftglass, Adams’s association is asking for a public statement from Brabrand recognizing how hard SBTs have worked since schools closed on March 13.

Adams’s letter also requested “consideration of hazard pay” for the SBTs who kept reporting to school buildings throughout the shutdown to get online learning up and running.

School district spokeswoman LucyCaldwell said “the superintendent appreciates the massive amount of work performed by the SBTs in preparation for distance learning. He also appreciates their concerns and will review their suggestions and recommendations carefully.”

Documents provided by the technology specialists in their letter to the school board Sunday, a copy of which was obtained by The Washington Post, confirm that guidance such as the decision to use guest links came from upper management.

On March 19, technology specialists participating in a training session on how to use Blackboard’s video platform were told, “If you have a generic, just an open session with an open link, that is fine. Ok, that is fine.” During that same training, several specialists asked whether it might be possible to send individual email invitations to students — a solution resembling the privacy protections Fairfax ultimately adopted, which require that participants authenticate their identities as students before joining virtual classrooms. They received no clear answer.

The Post previously reported that Fairfax’s struggles to debut online learning stemmed from the district’s failure to apply software updates for nearly two years, little consideration of basic privacy features and scant guidance given to teachers. Many teachers told The Post that they had grown used to using Google Classroom and found the decision to use Blackboard as the primary online platform unsettling and disappointing.

In internal communications, many technology specialists voiced the same concern ahead of the rollout.

The switch to Blackboard “is a BIG ask for our teachers who have spent hours of time building out their Google classrooms,” one specialist wrote in early March, in an online chat attended by Luftglass.

“I feel Blackboard is going to exacerbate teacher stress,” another specialist wrote later, closer to the debut of online schooling. “It doesn’t seem like an efficient use of time to push a tool that teachers dislike and have little familiarity with.”

Still another predicted: “Blackboard really would be a massive source of stress for us on Monday.”

Technology specialists also raised concerns that Fairfax students would take advantage of a feature allowing them to enter any username when they joined online classrooms. That anxiety proved well founded, as students last week picked names including the n-word. Some who joined a German class chose the names “I LOVE ADOLF HITLER” and “OVEN SURVIVOR #2,” according to images obtained by The Post.

On March 24, a technology employee posted that, although teachers can remove users with inappropriate names, the person can simply rejoin, leading to a “cat and mouse game.”

In another post, also in March, a technology specialist mentioned that one Fairfax teacher had conducted a practice session with 22 students. Those students had forwarded the guest link to enter the classroom to older friends in high school, according to the post, leading to chaos.

The older students “entered names like ‘Mike Hawk,’ (if you don’t get it, listen carefully when you say it),” the specialist wrote. “Mike Hawk was removed from class 6 times because although the teacher could remove them they can easily jump right back in!”

The specialist concluded: “What’s the county’s response to these behaviors?”

Robb Watters knows his response: The parent of a Fairfax second-grader is pulling his child from the system and home schooling for the rest of the year. He called the teacher last week to tell her.

Elsewhere in the district, a sixth-grade teacher emailed parents on Monday to share his frustration: He had tried to log in to Blackboard, only to get kicked out. Twice.

As a backup plan, the teacher wrote, he had uploaded the week’s assignments to Google Classroom. He suggested that parents and teachers check that site instead.

“Good luck and don’t take this personally,” the teacher wrote. “It’s not your technology. And I am so sorry.”

Coronavirus: What you need to know

The latest: The CDC has loosened many of its recommendations for battling the coronavirus, a strategic shift that puts more of the onus on individuals, rather than on schools, businesses and other institutions, to limit viral spread.

Variants: BA.5 is the most recent omicron subvariant, and it’s quickly become the dominant strain in the U.S. Here’s what to know about it, and why vaccines may only offer limited protection.

Vaccines: Vaccines: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that everyone age 12 and older get an updated coronavirus booster shot designed to target both the original virus and the omicron variant circulating now. You’re eligible for the shot if it has been at least two months since your initial vaccine or your last booster. An initial vaccine series for children under 5, meanwhile, became available this summer. Here’s what to know about how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections and booster history.

Guidance: CDC guidelines have been confusing — if you get covid, here’s how to tell when you’re no longer contagious. We’ve also created a guide to help you decide when to keep wearing face coverings.

Where do things stand? See the latest coronavirus numbers in the U.S. and across the world. The omicron variant is behind much of the recent spread.

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