The new academic year got off to a rough start after what appeared to be a virtual traffic jam kept some parents and teachers from logging into the first day of online classes in Palm Beach County public schools.
Students at multiple schools were turned away when trying to access the virtual classrooms via the district’s online portal. While some parents and teachers reported the log on going off without a hitch, others reported students missed their first period classes, and some teachers arrived late to the screen.
By the close of the school day, district officials said the portal had experienced intermittent problems, but was now working. They also said the district’s IT team is working with the vendor to get to the root of the problem.
It remained unclear how many of the district’s roughly 175,000 students and more than 12,000 teachers struggled to log on.
Because of the glitches, the district also was unable to calculate the first day’s attendance totals though staff was working with Google to discern what data could be gathered, district spokeswoman Julie Houston-Trieste said Monday afternoon.
The snag surfaced before 8 a.m. By 9 a.m., Superintendent Donald Fennoy reported that the problems were resolved within minutes, only to have to send a workaround to parents via email just before 11 a.m.
“We are experiencing some outages,” Fennoy said in a video posted to Facebook. “The team is working feverishly right now and will be working through the night to mitigate.” He also said “the vast majority of our schools … are online right now.”
Fennoy speculated at a press conference from Highland Elementary in Lake Worth Beach that the number of people logging on at once may have caused the problems.
The advised workaround was to log in directly through Google Classrooms, but even then parents reported difficulties.
Victoria Stewart was so eager to begin her first day as a middle schooler that she was primed to log in at 8:45 a.m. though school didn’t start until 9:30 a.m. But the virtual door was closed, said her father Zach Stewart.
At first he worried it was a problem with the family internet connection. He checked his voice mail, email, his text messages and the district’s home page looking for an answer and saw nothing.
“I usually get all three including landline and cell phone to the point where I complain about overcommunication!” Stewart said.
To further compound problems, Stewart and other parents said they got a busy signal when calling the district’s technology hotline. The stress hit fever pitch as the virtual first bell approached, particularly since the district widely advertised that attendance would be taken.
His daughter asked to use his computer — a no-go for the Palm Beach State College instructor who was due to launch an English class after noon.
At 9:50, Stewart spotted the workaround message on the district’s site, even as students across the county began sharing it via texts to their classmates. Five minutes later, Victoria was in class, having missed the first 20 minutes.
“I understand the spring was seat-of-your-pants; we’re figuring this out as we go. But this is something we’ve known was coming for months,” Stewart said, echoing many parents’ frustrations.
School Board member Erica Whitfield said her daughter, a student at Conniston Middle, was also briefly waylaid by login problems. “She got on after 15 minutes, so it wasn’t too terribly bad. But I talked to friends who said it took longer.”
In his video message to parents, Fennoy said schools will be directed to forgive tardies and absences that resulted from these technological road bumps.
The problems did not appear to sideline classes at Highland Elementary, where Fennoy began his day by dropping in on first grade teacher Alejandro Aponte, who was conducting lessons from his classroom as a field of freshly minted first graders looked back from a touchscreen the size of a blackboard.
Aponte was one of about 60 teachers who reported to campus to take advantage of the huge touchscreens and the materials at hand in their classroom. Another 38 teachers worked from home, Principal Elena Villani said.
The school has an open door policy that will allow those teachers to work from home or classroom flexibly while schools are in the remote learning phase.
Monday, as Aponte and puppet chatted with 17 students, Fennoy stepped in to welcome the class. Only one enrolled student didn’t make the Google gathering, the school reported.
Fennoy then walked the open halls following taped arrows on the floor that dictated future traffic patterns to the school library where he remotely checked in on Danielle Clark’s class at the just opened, rebuilt and expanded Verde Elementary in Boca Raton. The school will now grow into a kindergarten through grade 8 campus.
Fennoy also made an appearance in Heather Goss’ biology class at Glades Central High — where technical glitches made for one of those all-too-familiar, pause-filled exchanges where it’s not clear who heard what was said to whom.
The superintendent’s morning virtual tour ended with Siporah Dean’s fourth-grade class at Lake Park Elementary, where the students eagerly waved and welcomed their guest.
After wrapping up his classroom visits, Fennoy said he was not particularly concerned that glitches experienced in the morning would become a chronic issue. “If things come up, we’ll just fix them,” he said.
The broader matter of student access to the internet during fully remote learning has been an issue since the threat of COVID-19 abruptly moved classes online in the spring. The district has spent millions to buy computers and bridge the gaps to connecting electronically.
Highland, a school of roughly 1,000 students, most from poor families, is a microcosm of the solutions administrators have found. Villani said about 150 students either received a mobile hot spot device to access the internet or were able to tap into an opportunity to get internet through the district’s alliance with Comcast.
Having begun the school year fully remote — and three weeks later than once planned, the district is also grappling with what it will look like when students eventually return.
Later this week, district officials said they will be calling families to ask them to choose whether their children will be returning to campuses once they open or will remain in distance learning. Those headed back to classrooms will be asked to register and declare how they intend to get to school. Bus riders will be assigned bus stops and given their pick-up and drop-off times.
For now, despite a morning that began with a fair share of technical challenges, the ability to hop into an online class still thrilled Fennoy, “I can sit in my office and look at the whole district!”