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Zoom outages disrupt first day of online classes for many schools and universities

Zoom has been crucial for schools, which have depended on the videoconferencing software since the onset of the pandemic to facilitate online learning.
Zoom has been crucial for schools, which have depended on the videoconferencing software since the onset of the pandemic to facilitate online learning. (Sam Wasson/Getty Images)
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Monday was strange enough, without the usual excitement of meticulously planned first-day-of-school outfits and mingling with new classmates. Thousands of students woke up and logged in to their computers for a semester forced online by the coronavirus pandemic.

Or, at least they tried. Technical hiccups from the videoconferencing platform Zoom hampered the digital rollout for which campuses have spent months preparing. Zoom has been crucial for schools, from kindergarten to college, which have depended on the software since the onset of the pandemic to facilitate online learning.

“We’re so sorry about the inconvenience,” the company tweeted, as students, professors and university IT departments scrambled. Around 11 a.m. Eastern time, the San Jose, Calif.-based company began deploying a fix that restored service for some users.

But the technical woes had already caused problems. It’s unclear how many users were affected Monday, but clients in North America and parts of Europe and Asia reported problems, according to the website Downdetector.

Tamir Harper, 20, a junior at American University, tried to open Zoom at 9:45 a.m. for his introduction to acting class. Instead of finding his classmates, he received a message that said to wait for the host — his professor — to start the meeting.

Meanwhile, Harper’s professor told students he couldn’t start the class. Harper said he spent 30 minutes waiting before his professor moved class to a different videoconferencing platform. The public relations and education student, living in off-campus housing, said he started making breakfast to pass the time.

“Zoom was not ready for all of this,” Harper said. “This is how I’m expecting the entire semester to be. What else can happen to make this semester worse? And it’s day one.”

Pennsylvania State University student Kaylee Simon had an 8 a.m. toxicology class. But when she and her roommate tried to take their 9 a.m. classes, they both spent 30 or 40 minutes looking at their screens, which just said the professor had to let them in to the “room” for their classes held online through Zoom.

Finally, Simon’s professor sent a message saying she didn’t think they could have class Monday, Simon said, and followed with an email saying that it seemed other professors were having trouble as well.

“Hopefully, we’ll find a way to have class Wednesday,” said Simon, 21, of McLean, Va. “I think she’s trying to figure it out. She hasn’t told us yet what the plan is because I don’t think she knows yet.”

The school year is starting with a mix of modified in-person and online classes, and Simon said professors are very reliant on Zoom.

It was a frustrating start to her senior year for Simon, who wants to go to pharmacy school after graduation. “What are we supposed to do if they don’t figure out another resource?” she said. “How are we supposed to go to class when we’re paying so much tuition to be here?”

Officials at Penn State did not immediately respond to questions Monday.

At Atlanta Public Schools, which educates 52,000 students, there was a notice on the website Monday: “Zoom is currently experiencing an outage impacting the eastern United States. Atlanta Public Schools is working to resolve the issue with Zoom and will provide an update when restored. In the meantime, many schools are using Google Meet for virtual instruction until Zoom service is restored.”

The system began the school year virtually, with plans to reassess the health situation after nine weeks. Some schools were pivoting to other platforms such as Google Classroom, said Ian Smith, a spokesman for the district. Early Monday afternoon, he said he had watched a high school math class on Zoom. The teacher said there had initially been a disruption and they were contacting students through other means, and when Zoom came back up,they reassembled on that platform.

Smith said they had already set expectations that everything might not be perfect. “I think flexibility is probably the word of the day,” Smith said, “just being agile and prepared to be flexible as issues arise.”

“We’re excited,” Smith said. “This is day one for us. Even though it’s virtual, we’re excited to have our kids back. . . . We are using the tools we have to make sure our students continue to learn.”

Even K-12 schools that had not opened for the year were affected. In Montgomery County, Md., outside Washington, the outages intruded on teachers who were preparing for an Aug. 31 opening, affecting their scheduled webinars, virtual trainings and school-arranged meetings.

Howard University tweeted that it had received reports of sporadic outages affecting students across the country. George Mason University, which started classes Monday, said widespread outages had prevented users from logging in to the platform and performing other functions.

Problems with Zoom and virtual classes first arose in spring when schools across the country closed as the pandemic began. In late March, the FBI issued a warning about the “hijacking” of online classrooms and teleconferences by hackers.

Classes on Zoom were being disrupted in K-12 and higher education by saboteurs displaying pornographic pictures, racist language, images of Nazi swastikas and other offensive things. At the time, some school districts, including those in New York City and Clark County, Nev., stopped using Zoom for remote learning temporarily.

Now, with the start of the ­2020-21 school year, hackers again are targeting Internet services, online learning tools and virtual classrooms.

In New Palestine, Ind., a school district called the Community School Corporation of Southern Hancock County had to stop remote learning for the second and third days of class after someone flooded the system and forced the district’s servers to shut down.

“It was a prank to take our Internet down,” said Wes Anderson, spokesman for the school district. “You can’t really prevent this. It’s really easy to do, and there is an app for like 15 bucks that anybody can get and use it against whatever network you are connected to.”

In Plano, Tex., a sixth-grade student received threatening messages during his online lesson in Google Slides.

Jennifer Dobbs-Oates, a clinical associate professor at Purdue University, tweeted, “This is the most 2020 first day of the semester.” Reached by phone Monday, she said she doesn’t use Zoom in her classes, but many of her colleagues do, “and they were all atwitter about it.”

There is a lot of variation in approach, Dobbs-Oates said. “People are teaching in so many ways right now; even on a single campus, there are lots of different strategies and solutions.”

American University emailed students to say the partial outage seemed to be affecting users trying to launch Zoom from the company’s website and suggested students use Zoom’s desktop app.

Jay Ensor, a junior at AU, rolled out of bed and opened his laptop to start a class called “Politics of Population.” The Zoom outage delayed his class by about five minutes before his professor opted for a different platform.

“This would happen on the first day of class. Everyone’s on Zoom,” the international relations major said.

Around lunchtime, Zoom announced it had resolved the problem. “Everything should be working properly now!” the company tweeted. “We are continuing to monitor the situation.”

Despite the delay, Ensor said, things worked out.

“I think the fact that we were online at the end of the previous semester helped a lot,” he said.

Donna St. George and Valerie Strauss contributed to this report.

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