Fairfax Schools Give Incompetence a Bad Name

A fiasco wrapped in a clusterfuck.

In my March 13 post “Fairfax County Schools Do Right Thing for Wrong Reason After Doing Wrong Thing,” I detailed how Scott Braband, the superintendent of our kids’ school district, botched the handling of the coronavirus epidemic, closing schools—for that day only—only after angry parents forced his hand. That afternoon, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam made it a moot point, closing schools statewide for three weeks. And well before the re-open deadline, Northam declared them closed for the remainder of the school year.

Braband and company declared that the schools were going to use up the “snow days” built into the calendar and offer no instruction for a month and would then reopen on April 14 with a virtual model. It didn’t go so well.

WaPo‘s Hannah Natanson (“Failed tech, missed warnings: How Fairfax schools’ online learning debut went sideways“):

As schools across America, shut down by the novel coronavirus, scrambled to kick-start online learning, one of the largest and best-ranking school systems in the nation took its time.

Fairfax County Public Schools, in Northern Virginia, waited four weeks, including a week of spring break, before launching virtual school for its 189,000 students. It finally started on Tuesday, when teachers and children sat before screens to embark on a plan the superintendent promised would allow students “to continue learning . . . while being mindful of their health and wellness.”

The trouble started immediately, as many students and teachers found it impossible to log on. For some who could get online, things only got worse: Classes were hijacked by racist, homophobic and obscene language. Students appeared on screen naked or flashed weapons.

Fairfax canceled school for the rest of the week. In the days since, teachers and families have demanded to know how and why things went so wrong.

“Our families patiently waited for us to roll out this distance learning,” said Fairfax County School Board member Megan McLaughlin. “What happened this week — it just never should have happened. There’s going to be a great deal more of extensive review by this board of why and how it did happen.”

Interviews with more than a dozen Fairfax employees and families suggest initial answers: Needed technology updates were neglected for more than a year. Basic privacy features were ignored. And teachers were left adrift with scant guidance.

There’s a lot more there but it’s a story of rank incompetence and criminally poor leadership.

At any rate, after yet another week with no teaching whatsoever, they tried again yesterday. Let’s just say things didn’t improve.

Natanson again (“Fairfax temporarily cancels face-to-face video instruction, retains law firm to review botched debut of online learning“):

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.”

Five weeks into this mess—and it’s not like we didn’t know school closings were coming well before that—that’s hardly sufficient.

Further, as both reports detail, Braband and company were repeatedly warned about these issues. Hell, I knew about most of them a month ago myself and I’m not in charge of a school system.

Four days after Fairfax County schools closed, our college shifted to a remote model. Granting that we’re a whole lot smaller than a school system, we managed to figure it out. With less than a week’s notice, we figured out how to hold synchronous sessions on Zoom, Google Meets, and Adobe Connect. Professors figured out on almost no notice how to record lectures and post them to Moodle or YouTube.

It hasn’t gone without hiccups but, basically, we’re continuing on. Leadership got ahead of the problem and the faculty and staff pushed information to one another swiftly so that everyone could learn from mistakes made by faculty elsewhere or how to work around glitches in the various systems.

Again, I realize that getting a faculty of 30 ready to teach 220ish students is a very different enterprise than getting a large, distributed school district ready. But we didn’t take five weeks off, either.

The Blackboard is a lousy learning management system is not new news. That any number of widely available and essentially free products are much easier to use was known and communicated to leadership by Fairfax County’s technical support folks and teachers alike.

That Braband has not yet been fired astounds me.

FILED UNDER: Education
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Rick Almeida says:

    I am literally stunned at the district’s breathtaking incompetence. My wife is a middle school teacher in a district with about 40,000 K-12 students, and they managed the transition to online education in about three days. Not without hiccups, of course, and things are far from perfect, but still, entirely functional.

    10
  2. Scott says:

    Our district in San Antonio is about 60,000 students. My wife is an elementary school teacher in a Title I school (lower socio-economic families). District was fortunate that it closed during spring break when the students were off and had time to ramp up. But it did all the right things, I think. Contact with families. Ensuring technology (or other options because some families only had cell phones with limited data plans) was in place. The nutrition department was amazing distributing meals through the school bus system.

    My wife has classes every day and does a lot of one on one. School is out for the year but planning is already happening to have an accelerated makeup time in the Fall to try to catch up. Rather impressive.

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  3. Mikey says:

    My son’s a high schooler. We’re still trying to figure out what he needs to be doing when.

    A good friend is an FCPS teacher. She’s basically podcasting her classes at this point. That, and lots of e-mails and one-on-one however she can set it up.

    The one bright spot has been the distribution of meals to the kids who need them, that’s been going well since schools closed. And like where @Scott lives, they’re using school buses to help move the meals.

    That Braband has not yet been fired astounds me.

    Maybe they just don’t want to introduce even more turmoil until the current turmoil is resolved. But if you get the same e-mails I get from school board members, you’ll likely agree when I say I wouldn’t be surprised to see him gone at some point in the not-too-distant future.

    6
  4. OzarkHillbilly says:

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

    Because if anybody is an expert on technology and teaching, it’s a lawyer.

    Why just last week, when my computer crashed I called my old criminal lawyer and he fixed it right up. For a very reasonable price too.

    16
  5. Tyrell says:

    There are a lot of people around here who do not have the internet. I don’t know how they are doing school at home.

    2
  6. Scott says:

    @Tyrell: Those who can’t get online are probably prepared dpaper packets for the students (parents) to pick up. My wife spent yesterday at the elementary school making copies of the lessons and homework packages enough to get through the next three week period.

    There are also some programs to provide Chromebooks and other technology services.

    3
  7. Kingdaddy says:

    I know Blackboard as a company pretty well. They peddle a so-so learning management system. Their ace in the hole, traditionally, was their aggressive marketing and sales. They’ve been the Microsoft of the LMS market: not the best technology, but very good at competition.

    School districts often have very poor IT organizations, including on the procurement side. It’s a mirror of the same problems at the county or city level, IT-wise. You don’t get top-notch staffers, budgets are tight, and IT leadership is often non-existent.

    7
  8. Gromitt Gunn says:

    Wow. Both my community college district (20,000 students) and the local school districts stayed closed for one extra week after Spring Break to convert everything to online instruction and figure out the logistics of feeding kids, student housing, delivering materials to students without internet, etc. Of course there were hiccups and steeper learning curves for some people, but overall it has been done in a competent manner.

    I’m frankly as shocked as you are that anyone took a month and still failed to launch. And just the word Blackboard also makes me shiver.

    4
  9. Kit says:

    @OzarkHillbilly:

    Because if anybody is an expert on technology and teaching, it’s a lawyer.

    Why just last week, when my computer crashed I called my old criminal lawyer and he fixed it right up. For a very reasonable price too.

    My pleasure. By the way, while fixing your PC, I ran across some photos I think we should talk about. Schedule another hour on my site, and when you check out use the promo code FIXMYWIFI.

    2
  10. Jim Brown 32 says:

    @Kingdaddy: This. School District IT is simply not a preferred destination for with technicians or IT managers. You need a nucleus of talent to devise a tailored solution for an organization and management a rollout. That’s not a task your steady state IT staff at a government organization is built for. I mean..someone decided on Blackboard…you dont need to analyze any further than that to know mistakes were made.

    6
  11. James Joyner says:

    @Kingdaddy: @Jim Brown 32: Oh, it gets better. FCPS hadn’t updated their BlackBoard software in two years (meaning it’s three years out of date) and had already announced it was moving from BlackBoard to Schoology for next academic year. Guess how motivated BlackBoard was to help fix this mess?

    6
  12. Mattauszek says:

    Well, as soon as the Governor closed schools, I launched into action searching for a virtual school to supplement my kids last semester so they would not fall behind. I didn’t have much faith in the emails FCPS were sending out. All talk and no action! Then we got the first learning packet and I literally said ” This is a JOKE! My kids will be done with this in an hour. This is not adequate for a week!” Needless to say we signed our children up with the virtual school K12 week 2 of quarantine because we completely lost faith in FCPS getting it together. Had to take my kids future out of Fairfax hands because everything felt ridiculous.

    4
  13. Mm says:

    @Tyrell: TV channel learning and at home packets. They did distribute wifi services to those that were in need too.

    1
  14. Parent of two says:

    Technology fix. “Kids, open your books to chapter 4, section 3. Read it and answer the odd number questions at the end”. I guess spending money on law firms better educates kids than buying them text books. Making an elementary school child operate a laptop, surf to a website, type in a long string customized FCPS username and password and find their lesson on an obscure page seemingly infinite clicks deep is such a productive, barrier-free way to teach. Even if the technology worked, that 60 whole minutes of scheduled class time per day is really going to rocket Fairfax county kids to success. Distance learning might work for some self motivated adult college students, but kids need more structure. I never thought it would be the school district making one excuse after the other why they haven’t done their homework. Did the dog eat the school district’s distance learning plan?

    5
  15. Robert Sharperson says:

    My former school system. I am embarrassed. SMDH

  16. Gabrielle Borden says:

    Wow! I love how everybody is so judgemental! Fairfax county(FCPS) is the largest in VA and the only one trying to provide live face to face instruction for 189,000 students. FCPS system has kept us informed every day of what steps are being taken to provide security for cyber intrusions and those hacking into online classes, as well as updating BB to handle all the traffic. I would like to see you try and flawlessly implement something so big with so many working to disrupt it. Why don’t you go big the federal government about how their servers can’t handle all the tele working traffic. I swear all people want to do these days is tear anyone down who is trying to good, but isn’t 100% perfect!!

    2
  17. Matt says:

    @Gabrielle Borden:

    Why don’t you go big the federal government about how their servers can’t handle all the tele working traffic.

    What is that even supposed to mean?