City of F.C. Schools Dodge Online Learning Problems Plaguing Fairfax County

By Nicholas F. Benton & Matt Delaney

A screenshot from a Mary Ellen Henderson Schoolology page.

The woes piled up for Fairfax County’s public school system after its distance learning program was shut down for the second time in two weeks as it shifted to online schooling during the coronavirus pandemic. Now, the county’s school system says it will move away from using its online learning platform, Blackboard, to deliver daily classes.

Fairfax’s misfortune serves as a reminder of some of the advantages built into its smaller neighbor, the Falls Church City Public Schools, which has maneuvered the virtual workload brought on by the crisis with minimal drama so far.

The state’s largest school system with 189,000 students, Fairfax County had its Blackboard Learn 24/7 web platform shut down after one day of operation last week and then again this Monday after students’ ability to log in became hit or miss as the day progressed.

Lucy Caldwell, a spokeswoman for the school system, released the following statement discussing the technical issues Monday.

“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.

Fairfax superintendent Scott Brabrand said the difficulties were “frustrating and disappointing” in a letter sent out by the school system Monday. He announced that Fairfax schools’ would no longer use Blackboard for “face-to-face” instruction and would begin to use Google Classroom, pre-recorded videos, learning packets, eBooks and programming on Channels 21, 25 and 99 as teaching resources.

The school system will also undergo an outside review to assess its virtual learning services and is creating an advisory technology council to “help resolve any current distance learning challenges” and improve the virtual classroom experience as a whole, Brabrand said.

Last week’s platform shut down stemmed from a lack of space and security after one day of classes on April 15. Security concerns drew the most ire from parents when “guests” found a way to join live presentations and flood them with obscene comments and objectionable images.

Providence District Board member Karl Frisch, elected in November, spearheaded a heated line of questioning into the problems, which administration officials promised would be corrected such that classes could be resumed on Monday.

The failure to maintain upgrades to the platform appeared to be among the issues. Although Frisch also noted that in preparing teachers to use the system, they were advised to keep the option for “guests” by the system’s professionals open, which exposed it to the security issues.

Fears of unwelcome intrusions into the platform had led the system to avoid the popular Zoom video conferencing platform, he said, apparently unaware that Blackboard has similar problems.

But the compound problems vexing the Fairfax County system have been entirely absent from the City of Falls Church’s online education program that kicked off a fourth quarter with better than 90 percent student attendance this week.

Peter Noonan, superintendent of the Falls Church schools and who once worked in the Fairfax County system, told the Falls Church School Board in its online meeting Tuesday night and confirmed to the News-Press that everything has been going swimmingly for the F.C. system and its 2,600 students in K-12 programs.

While not commenting on Fairfax’s troubles, he said that careful and timely preparation and the system’s commitment to use of technology in its classrooms have contributed to its smooth functioning. These factors, more than the fact the Falls Church system is tiny by comparison to its behemoth of a neighbor, has made the difference.

Falls Church schools’ chief academic officer, William Bates, told the News-Press that the shift to virtual classes was set in motion at the school system’s annual leadership retreat at the end of February. During the retreat, Noonan asked the school system’s executives and principals to think of everything the schools would need to function for two to three weeks in the event that its buildings would be closed.

On March 2, teachers began working to develop distance learning plans for up to 20 days of school and submit them to their respective principals by March 11, per Bates. The following day Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam would declare a state of emergency that influenced Falls Church to suspend classes on March 13.

“We never fly by the seat of our pants in [Falls Church City Public Schools],” Bates told the News-Press over email. “Once we learned that schools would be temporarily closed our division was already prepared because the lessons were already developed and the distribution plan was already in place and ready to be implemented. Afterwards, when the Governor announced that schools would close for the remainder of the school year we were able to focus solely on getting ready for new learning.”

The “new learning” Bates referred to started on April 14 had teachers review previous standards and “select the most important standards to include in the new learning lessons.”

Bates wrote that the school system discussed its plan with other schools throughout Northern Virginia and was assisted by the robust feedback it normally receives from its active parent community as well. He added that the City schools’ smaller size allows them to move quickly to make and implement their administrative decisions.

Familiarity with Schoology — the Blackboard equivalent for Falls Church — was already evident for both teachers and students, wrote Bates. For those that weren’t comfortable with the platform, the school system’s director of technology helped get them up to speed over virtual and face-to-face training sessions.

While many of the reported problems with the Fairfax schools’ efforts stemmed from their choice to use Blackboard that didn’t allow for shutting off inappropriate images or comments, the Falls Church administration was aware of this weakness and chose the Schoology program which has a feature that can prevent those situations.

Noonan said that teachers and students in Falls Church “have embraced technology in the classroom” for a number of years already, making them accustomed to the devices utilized, including the provision of devices to every student paid for by the district.