See below for video, background and other information on the situation with “synchronous learning”/”remote instruction” in Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS), including the lengthy School Board meeting yesterday on this and other topics. As FCPS wrote last night: “We apologize for the significant difficulties with FCPS 24/7 Blackboard Learn. It will be unavailable from 6 p.m. tonight, April 16, until 8 a.m. on April 18, to allow Blackboard to perform system maintenance and updates to ensure stability for distance learning.”
Also, for a quick summary of what happened at the School Board meeting, see:
Fairfax Co. school officials apologize for tech flub; company says software hadn’t been updated in 2 years: “During a virtual school board meeting that focused on the mishaps and glitches in the distance learning experience, representatives from Blackboard, the system the county uses for online and distance learning, also repeatedly apologized for the platform’s performance, but told board members the school system hadn’t updated the software that runs the virtual system in two years…FCPS Superintendent Scott Brabrand told WTOP that he wanted to apologize to parents and students for the mishaps…One of the biggest problems identified was simply the difficulty students and others had logging in to the system. In some cases, the servers couldn’t handle the number of simultaneous logins.”
Basically, as the Washington Post reported Wednesday night, “Tech glitches, harassment mar Fairfax County schools’ online learning rollout”:
“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.”
Also, here’s a message from FCPS Superintendent Scott Brabrand:
Coronavirus Update – Message from the Superintendent – April 15
Coronavirus Update – April 15
Dear FCPS Families,
As you know, the start of distance learning has not gone as smoothly as hoped. We sincerely appreciate your patience and share your frustration related to our distance learning challenges this week. FCPS had worked closely with Blackboard’s technical team for several weeks prior to the launch of distance learning and there was no indication that the system would be unable to handle the volume of participating users or would be susceptible to the security issues that many of our schools encountered.
Unfortunately, it is necessary to pause this week’s distance learning schedule. Technical teams for FCPS and Blackboard believe they have identified the root cause of the connectivity problems and that they involve a software issue. In order to work properly, staff must make necessary updates and patches to the system. On a system as large as FCPS’, these critical updates take time and we will reassess the situation and provide an update on Friday. Additionally, there will be a staff training component attached to the system upgrades. Updates will begin tonight (April 15), run through tomorrow, and staff training will take place on Friday.
Teacher-led instruction through Blackboard 24/7 scheduled for tomorrow, April 16, and Friday, April 17, has been canceled.
Teachers will be contacting students over the next two days through email or phone calls to ensure that third quarter work assigned prior to March 13 is completed and submitted. Students should be checking their FCPS Gmail account (that ends in @fcpsschools.net). If your student is not contacted, please reach out to your principal.
Teacher-led instruction for students is expected to resume on Monday, April 20. Access to learning resources will continue to be available through live streaming of instructional programming for elementary, middle and high school students on local cable channels. Additional distance learning resources by grade level are also available on the FCPS website: Distance Learning.
Blackboard has shared the following statement with Fairfax County Public Schools:
“Blackboard has been working hard with Fairfax County Public Schools to move its 189,000 students to fully remote instruction during this unprecedented crisis. We encountered unexpected technical challenges over the past couple of days that caused some users to experience issues when logging into the FCPS 24-7 Learning site, and we are working closely with FCPS to resolve the issues as quickly as possible. In addition, we are working with FCPS to require students to log in to the FCPS 24-7 site and authenticate their identity before they are permitted to join a virtual classroom.
“As a Fairfax County-based company, we are deeply committed to providing Fairfax students and parents the robust and secure learning environment that they want and need. We apologize for the disruption this has caused to instruction and we appreciate patience as we all work together as an education community to ensure continuity of learning for students.”
I recognize the events of this week do not meet the expectations of our community. I will work tirelessly to make this right.
Scott Brabrand, Superintendent
Fairfax County Public Schools
FCPS member Rachna Sizemore Heizer provides some more background:
“FCPS ALERT – Due to software issues with Blackboard FCPS will be pausing distance learning for this week while Blackboard resolves technical issues. I am truly sorry for frustration this causes our families, students, and teachers who were looking forward to connecting and learning together.
As a parent and a school board member I know the deep disappointment this causes. Your anger and frustration are understood. We have been working with Blackboard for four weeks to ensure a smooth transition to distance learning, which failed. I am sorry for that. I look at my job to be a conduit between you and our leadership, to share your concerns, to base our policy on what is best for our kiddos and to make sure our leadership team is doing their job. I and many of my colleagues have been asking about security concerns, about load concerns, and other issues to ensure we were ready to go. We believed we were ready with the transition to distance learning to be as easy and seamless as possible in these crazy times. Clearly that was not correct. I am now committed to getting answers and ensuring a fix to this.
For our kids who really need to see their friends and teachers, I am sorry. Know my heart breaks for you and know that I understand the importance of that connection, of continuity, and of your education.
To the parents I feel you. I hear you. And, as a parent myself, your frustration is echoed in my own feelings and thoughts. I know we have asked for your patience and you have shown it over and over. I am so sorry to have to ask for more patience and I know it is not fair or right to ask for more. Yet here we are and I am sorry.”
FCPS member Melanie Meren also provides more background:
“Hello Fairfax community members and friends.
Wow, it’s been a crazy day for students, families, teachers, and staff of Fairfax County Public Schools. We are certainly getting practice with how to deal with changes and disruptions. It is not easy, and I am sorry to those who are feeling let down by the system.
First: I hear and share your frustration about the abrupt postponement of distance learning until Monday. I realize many of us have been waiting patiently for the past month for distance learning to be prepared, and this is a disappointment.
There are many questions I still don’t know the answers to – especially about how the Blackboard platform was appropriately tested to ensure it could be secure and maintain service. I am asking questions of FCPS staff and working with my School Board colleagues so we can improve the situation.
On Thursday, April 16, the School Board will have its virtual meeting, and the first order of business is hearing an update from the Superintendent on the distance learning plan and Blackboard, followed by Board questions and discussion. The meeting begins at 10am, and will be live streamed here: https://www.fcps.edu/school-board/school-board-meetings. A recording of the meeting will be placed there eventually, but you can most quickly see the recorded meeting on You Tube, here: https://www.youtube.com/user/FairfaxCountySchools/videos.
Also, I’m aware that although direction was given from central office for implementing the distance learning plan, schools and even sometimes classes or grades within schools are going about some aspects of it in different ways. This is causing confusion for parents and students. Our system of nearly 200 schools will have differences, but I’m seeking how FCPS can improve the situation as much as possible, or at least communicate about it better.
I continue to listen to you, and do what I can to obtain answers and prompt action.
Thank you for trying to find patience during this epic time. Please thank your children’s teachers, because from the stories I’ve heard – and what I’ve seen at my own children’s school – the staff is working so hard to serve our students. Please offer criticism with kindness. Although you may not see it, so much work is going on behind the scenes, with many late nights and online meetings, done by individuals who, like you, are living with daily fear of the global pandemic.
We will get through this, and we will learn many lessons along the way. Stay well.”
Now, here’s the video of yesterday’s Fairfax County School Board meeting, with a few excerpts of comments by members just to give a flavor of the discussion. Note that several of the members (e.g., the ones quoted below) seemed angry and frustrated, for good reasons, and pressed the Blackboard representatives *hard*. Good work!
School Board member Karl Frisch: “Yesterday, I emailed my constituents expressing my frustration with where we find ourselves today…From an equity standpoint, the fact that we have many students in schools who had no problem and perhaps an even larger number of people who did have problem is a significant issue…We were assured that Blackboard was the way to go. Many school board members were cautioned against using other platforms…We were told not to use other platforms because of security concerns almost identical in some ways to some of the issues that were later experienced on Blackboard…We asked a lot of questions…When we carry that information to our constituents, trusting that we’re getting the full picture and that everything’s going to work fine, it’s not just egg on our face, it’s further frustration for our constituents…Beyond simply using the word ‘accountable,’ what does accountable in action look like to you?…It seems to me that simply publishing to a website that nobody goes to is more of a CYA approach than a doing right by your clients approach.”
School Board Laura Jane Cohen: “I can tell you that there were problems with Blackboard historically that have happened, and been the bane of teachers’ existence, which is why so many people have used Google Classrooms instead…I don’t know how much we pay for Blackboard. I certainly assume that we’re going to be getting a refund from them for all the days we have not been able to provide services to our families…If we’re too big to be nimble, then we ought to be flexible…If Blackboard can’t handle it, let’s try Google. If this doesn’t work, let’s try Zoom. Let’s do whatever we can to get learning in the hands of our kids…The conversation today has been disappointing about who’s going to take responsibility and what accountability really looks like.”
School Board member Rachna Sizemore Heizer: “I’ve heard from many parents about radio silence from special education teachers, and I know how much these teachers care about their kids, so I don’t think it’s coming from them…I have an issue with the continual statements I keep hearing that there was no indications problems would occur, because I also heard from Blackboard…they’ve had this exact problem…with their larger customers and had a software fix already done…in this situation, with the stakes being this high for distance learning…that maybe during these last four weeks we shoud have been given that software that solved this problem rather than waiting to see if we had this problem and then given the software update…”
School Board member Karen Keys Gamarra: “I also want to deal with the security issue with respect to not recognizing the extent to which students could end up being disrespectful…I do have a great deal of concern about what appears to be the failure to recognize how that could be a problem, having worked with teenagers for a number of years…That raises a major red flag for me…Will our staff members have the ability to cut off people in the discussion or to delete certain comments that may not be appropriate? It is our duty to protect the students who are engaging in learning on our platform…”