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School, but an ‘undead version’: Students, parents and teachers in Northern Virginia adjust to online learning

Jay Horton, 6, attends virtual first grade in Arlington during the first week of school. (Amanda Andrade-Rhoades for The Washington Post)

Teaching math this past week — a job he’s had for nearly 30 years — Jay Bradley found himself recalling Isaac Asimov’s 1951 short story, “The Fun They Had.”

The science-fiction tale, set in the 2150s, describes an education program in which children learn individually, at home, from robot teachers. Bradley, 51, last read Asimov’s story in the ’70s, but one scene stuck with him: The moment an 11-year-old enters her classroom.

“Margie went into the schoolroom . . . and the mechanical teacher was on and waiting for her,” the passage reads. “The screen was lit up, and it said: ‘Today’s arithmetic lesson is on the addition of proper fractions. Please insert yesterday’s homework in the proper slot.’ Margie did so with a sigh.”

These days, Bradley — who teaches middle school in Fairfax County Public Schools — feels a lot like the “mechanical teacher.” He spends every morning huddled in a spare room in his Northern Virginia home staring at his computer screen. The monitor is filled with small rectangles: Each one depicts an anonymous, identical silhouette.

These, Bradley explained, are his students. Most keep their cameras off.

“Sometimes,” he said, “you feel as if you’re speaking to thin air. Or to no one at all.”

One week into remote schooling, students, parents and teachers throughout Northern Virginia — where all major public school districts are conducting online-only learning — are slowly adjusting to their new, virtual reality. The first week of school-from-a-distance saw no massive technological or privacy failures, according to interviews with more than two dozen educators, parents and students. Just a whole lot of bizarre.

“School is back,” texted one Fairfax parent. “But it seems in a kind of ‘undead’ version.”

Back to school, but not back to normal: Students and teachers in Northern Virginia launch online learning

There were some hiccups. Just before school launched on Sept. 8, Fairfax, which serves 189,000 students, was hit with a ransomware attack. A group of hackers claimed to have stolen staff information. The incident, now being investigated by the FBI, did not disrupt online lessons for most students and teachers.

Arlington Public Schools struggled with its technology on the first day of learning, leaving many of its 28,000 students unable to log into class using school-issued devices. Schools Superintendent Francisco Durán attributed the problem to officials’ failure to prepare for the high volume of simultaneous log-ins, and the school system resolved the problem — for the most part — by the next day.

And in Loudoun County Public Schools, which enrolls 83,000, some classrooms saw bad behavior. Spokesman Rob Doolittle said teachers in the school system reported racist or sexually inappropriate acts in 10 classrooms, spanning six different schools. Officials are still exploring the misconduct and determining appropriate punishment, but they are confident that the perpetrators were students.

Still, bigger issues — such as the lack of Internet and devices that kept thousands from learning last spring — did not surface. School officials throughout Northern Virginia worked all summer to ensure that families could get online in the fall. Staffers delivered iPads, Chromebooks and WiFi hotspots; school systems partnered with county governments and service providers to extend Internet to more households.

Parents, guardians and teachers, how is school during the pandemic going for you? Tell The Post.

In interviews, teachers in the districts said they were thrilled to see almost all of their students pop in to every class.

“It’s been incredibly good attendance,” said Fairfax’s Bradley, who said he missed connecting with just two children. “I think the school did a wonderful job chasing students down.”

Danielle Thorne, a high school geometry teacher in Alexandria, said only three of her students have so far failed to show up — out of 75 she is teaching.

“I was nervous about that,” Thorne said. “So I’m happily surprised that the kids are all there, and they’re all doing their work in class and out of class.”

The basics largely taken care of, most are confronting the next key question: Can kids actually learn online?

Abigail Herrada, 16, said she thinks she can — so long as she hides her phone.

Herrada, who attends high school in Arlington, started throwing her iPhone across the room before class began. Then, she began stowing it in another room entirely.

“In the past, you had to sneak your phone into class and you could only be on it for a few minutes,” she said. “But now you can be on it the entire class time and the teacher won’t notice, so it can be hard to avoid the distractions.”

But there are advantages, too: Like the fact she can roll straight out of bed, throw on a sweatshirt and be at school. She can use the bathroom without having to ask permission. And she can snack anytime she likes — although she makes sure to turn her camera off while she’s eating, which she guesses is what counts for courtesy during the coronavirus pandemic.

Lorraine Lundqvist, a Loudoun parent, also said she thinks online school works for her two boys, an eighth-grader and a high school senior.

Lundqvist, who is 52 and works from home running a small consulting company, transformed her family’s basement to serve as a virtual classroom. It didn’t take too much: She purchased two stand-or-sit desks from Ikea. Now, her boys spend their days learning side-by-side, using headphones.

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Throughout the first week, Lundqvist popped downstairs every few hours. She peered in silently, then raised a tentative thumbs-up: Are you guys good?

“Every time, they turned and gave me a thumbs-up back,” Lundqvist said. “My kids are engaging with their teachers. They’re learning. I think it’s because the teachers are really, really putting a lot of effort forward, and the kids are picking up on that.”

In fact, Lundqvist said, she thinks online school might be a boon for her younger son: He had struggled to adjust to middle school, disliking the way that other boys shoved each other on the bus or spoke crassly about drugs and girls.

“The very first day,” Lundqvist said, “my youngest son turned to me afterward and said: ‘I love this.’ ”

For others, though, the first week brought an unwelcome realization: that their carefully plotted learn-from-home setups just weren’t going to work.

Deanna Caputo, 43, has two children enrolled in Arlington schools: a kindergartner and a fourth-grader. She had set them up with learning spaces in their Arlington Forest home, but the kindergartner broke down in tears of frustration on her first day. On the fourth day, her son suddenly began sobbing.

“He just looked at me, he didn’t know what to say and he couldn’t explain it,” she said. “I asked, ‘How are you feeling inside? Are you angry? Are you sad?’ And he was just lonely.”

Now, her daughter is in a professional pod run by a day-care center, which is costing Caputo $1,000 a month. And she joined with two other families in her son’s class to create a more informal pod for him, which is free.

Some educators also had to make adjustments. Thorne, the Alexandria teacher, said she soon learned that online teaching demands more detailed, precise instructions than in-person school did.

Elsewhere in Fairfax, veteran high school English teacher Theresa Poquis started the week feeling odd and impersonal. How, she asked herself, could she possibly get to know a screen full of rectangles?

Then, during the final period on Friday, she had an idea.

Poquis, 52, sent her students into small “breakout rooms” for discussion. When they returned to the main video classroom, she sent everyone a link, promising it would lead to an instructional slide. Instead, the link sent the teenagers to Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up” on YouTube — a prank known as “rick-rolling.”

“They just started laughing and screaming and saying, ‘OMG, she just rick-rolled us!’ ‘I can’t believe it!’ ” Poquis said. “They were hysterical.”

So was she. It was her best laugh, she said, of the entire pandemic.