FAIRFAX COUNTY, Va. — Technical issues delayed Fairfax County Public Schools again on Monday, with parents, students and teachers saying they could not access Blackboard, the system used for distance learning.
Lucy Caldwell, Director of News and Information for Fairfax County Public Schools, released a statement Monday morning regarding the continuing technical issues with their online system.
"This morning has been a challenge regarding access to Blackboard 24/7. Some users were able to access the system early however as the volume increased, we received word that access was intermittent or slow, in some cases requiring multiple logon attempts. Once inside the system, Blackboard Collaborate worked well," Caldwell said. "Distance learning is continuing as teachers are providing instructional opportunities to students through other tools, including Google classroom, pre-recorded videos, learning packets, eBooks, and other approved digital resources as well as directing students to Channels 21, 25, and 99."
Fairfax County Public Schools began its first day of distance learning on April 14, and it didn't last long.
Blackboard had several outages throughout the day disrupting classes. Initially, FCPS issued a two-hour delay for April 15 classes but announced at 11:30 a.m. that classes for the day were canceled.
FCPS parents said prior to the cancellation of distance learning, students were anxious and excited to see their classmates and teacher again, albeit virtually.
"It was so new to them. They were excited about it," FCPS parent Ray Patterson said. "So, we were able to get on last Monday morning for about 15 minutes."
He said after that, they just couldn't get into the system. The problem wasn’t isolated to the Patterson family; it was a district-wide issue where students were no longer able to access Blackboard, the distance learning website the district uses.
Caldwell said in some cases students were using guest accounts and identifying themselves with offensive names and using heinous language that no students should be exposed to.
She said roughly 20 incidents reported to IT where students used offense and inappropriate language. She said there were most likely other inappropriate, but not as serious, comments made that were not reported to IT.
Angela Myung said her son ran into a security situation where other people were logging into the distance learning classroom using her high school son’s name.
"My high schooler was upstairs in his room, trying to get into his class, and there were other kids going in and that were using his name and initial, and we could hear him upstairs yelling getting frustrated," Myung said.
Online learning security was an issue Fairfax County Public School Board Members talked about at length during the April 16 virtual school board meeting.
"Those small number of students did some not such good things," Assistant Superintendent Maribeth Luftglass said.
Board members and school officials said the failure of the distance learning system was in part their fault.
"We failed to properly train the staff. We failed to properly communicate the expectations for setting up the blackboard system securely and we failed to monitor the implementation. I mean that's the bottom line," Assistant Superintendent Sloan Presidio said.
Patterson said he, too, watched the virtual school board meeting and said his biggest frustration was the lack of preparedness associated with virtual learning.
"The county was in so many ways just unprepared," Patterson said. "That’s the shocking thing really, we understand a pandemic is different. However, you know, there are other jurisdictions that have been able to do some effective things that are not nearly as funded as Fairfax County."
Another issue the district encountered with the distance learning website Blackboard was an overloading of the system.
Caldwell said the district’s IT department had trusted Blackboard that the system would not crash when 190,000 people logged onto the site at once.
She said in many cases, especially with elementary learning, things were going well, but the system suddenly stopped working in the middle of lessons.
Caldwell said the district has a $2.6 million annual contract with Blackboard, which includes an extra $150,000 a month for the extra work being done during the shutdown. Caldwell said that extra money was agreed upon before the system failed.
She said the district’s contract with Blackboard ends in 2021.
Myung said, for her children, not having distance learning classrooms where students can see each other is failing them emotionally, and she hopes this gets fixed.
"I'm stuck and my kids are stuck in this mess that I don't think they’re going to get worked out," Myung said. "I think the system is broken and needs to be replaced, there are easier ways to do that."
FCPS issued a statement on April 17, hopeful things will work well going forward.
“Blackboard continues to make the necessary upgrades to the FCPS 24-7 system to bring students back to a safer, more stable online environment,” a district statement said. “We remain hopeful that the upgrades will be successful and the 24/7 system will be able to accommodate all of our users. If Blackboard is unable to provide a reliable operating system, your child’s teacher will still provide new instructional opportunities through a variety of tools including Google Classroom, pre-recorded videos, learning packets, eBooks, email, and other approved digital resources as well as directing students to Channels 21, 25 and 99 resources. If Blackboard 24/7 remains inoperable during the week, schools will also be preparing to provide “face to face” instruction through a secure Blackboard Collaborate Ultra link. In the meantime, please ensure that your student has set Chrome as the default browser on the device they will be using for distance learning. Directions can be found on our website. We once again apologize for the significant difficulties experienced with the FCPS 24-7 Blackboard system. Thank you for your patience and support.”