Miami Herald | by Haley Lerner, Michelle Marchante and Colleen Wright | August 19, 2020
The virtual school door had problems opening Wednesday morning in Broward County.
Students were met with log-in errors, slow connectivity and crashing dashboards during the first day of the new school year, held virtually at public schools across Broward County.
The issues frustrated parents who were hoping their children would have a smoother experience than the abrupt online transition in the spring at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.
At a press conference at the school district’s Fort Lauderdale headquarters, Broward Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie said an estimated 197,000 students attended online school Wednesday out of the 261,000 students enrolled in the district. There were 212,000 people on the online system simultaneously, including teachers and administrators.
He called reports of glitches on Canvas, the district’s online learning platform, “exaggerated.” He said the district does not expect the same issues to happen Thursday.
“There was a period between 8:35 and 8:50, basically 15, 20 minutes when high school students came on and it was a heavy load trying to log onto the system at the same time,” he said. “That was resolved very quickly.”
Runcie said the problem stemmed from too many people trying to log on at the same time. He said there will now be a bigger window for students to log on to the program. He said when the issue happened, there were 107,000 people online on the system.
Broward School Board Chair Donna Korn said she recognized that the virtual learning model might be difficult for some teachers and students, but said she thought the first day was “tremendous.” She encouraged parents to attend their schools’ virtual open houses to get more information about online learning.
“The district’s teachers, school-based administration and support staff and the entire district staff deserve significant recognition for how smoothly today has gone and how well overall our day has gone,” she said.
Runcie said the district will evaluate its online status every two weeks.
“I want to reiterate our urgent desire to get our campuses open,” he said. “We will need the continued diligence, discipline and support from our community to change behaviors, wear masks, physical distance, adhere to health and safety protocols, avoid crowds, so that we can get the infection rates down in Broward County.”
Korri Clementson, a mother of two, said her Driftwood Middle sixth-grader and Sheridan Park kindergartner had trouble logging in and that neither of their dashboards would load.
“I know working parents are struggling with anxiety just as my husband and I are, trying to figure out how we balance trying to work and monitor our kids progress. … Adding to it confusion, technical difficulties and disorganization doesn’t get anyone pumped up to keep a positive outlook on this situation,” Clementson said. “Broward pushed too soon today to start and they weren’t ready.”
One parent emailed the Herald describing the list of problems their third-grade daughter was experiencing with Canvas. She kept getting kicked out, the screen would freeze, and other features such as the “chat” box would not work.
“The teacher gave up. She said ‘none of the technology works. Let’s dance.’ … The teacher is now taking song requests,” the parent wrote.
But Plantation parent Kristen Hewitt says Wednesday morning was nothing like how it was back in March, when schools abruptly canceled in-person classes due to COVID-19.
“Surprisingly, it was so much better than when the pandemic first hit,” said Hewitt, who has a third-grader at Tropical Elementary and a sixth-grader at Indian Ridge Middle. She said Wednesday was a departure from last spring, when only one of her children had virtual instruction, leaving her in charge of teaching.
“For me it was like a breath of fresh air,” she said. “I was so relieved to have another adult teaching my kids because I’m not a good teacher.”
On Wednesday, Hewitt’s children logged on 20 minutes ahead of time and had no issues. It felt like as normal as a school day you can have during the pandemic, she said, with snack breaks and PE time on the swing set. She said her child’s art teacher couldn’t load the class.
“It’s the first day and you have all these kids on the server,” she said. “I don’t think anyone can expect it to go perfectly.”
Runcie visited Nova Blanche Forman Elementary School in Davie at 8 a.m. to meet with with teachers who were welcoming students by streaming live from their classrooms.
“Our teachers have worked so hard over this summer,” Runcie said. “They’ve trained themselves on utilizing tools and resources that are available to ensure that they are going to be effective, that they’re going to be able to engage their students.”
Teachers are permitted to teach in their classrooms, while streaming to their students at home. Broward Teachers Union president Anna Fusco said she did not know how many teachers opted to teach in schools.
She said she’s heard from teachers who were frustrated with the sporadic complications of logging on.
“Teachers just don’t want to be the ones that look like they didn’t know what they were doing,” said Fusco. “They planned, they did their courses, they understand how to use (Microsoft) Teams and understand how to turn on their video. But when the system is being handled by district level… the parents don’t get that.”
“I’m anticipating it’s not going to be the same old same old,” she said. “Just gotta get through the technical difficulties.”
Runcie acknowledged the issues.
“We know that some of them are going to have some challenges as we work through computer and tech problems that they may have,” Runcie said. “But I want to encourage every parent, every family, if you’re having any issues —our principals our administrators, our staff — they’re here at our schools. They’re here to take your calls.”
Fourth-grade teacher Julia Williams donned a tie-dyed T-shirt with the words, “Get your virtual teach on,” as she taught her class of 22 students via her computer. She said the goal of the first couple weeks of class is to build relationships with students virtually.
“This has been a learning curve for everybody,” Williams said. “You know that we are going to come through challenges now and two weeks from now and so we’ve been leaning on each other. My hope is that the parents and teachers can work together like no other this year.”
Third-grade teacher Skylar Billingsley spent the morning teaching her students commands on Zoom. The first lesson: Turning mics off and virtually raising hands.
“Put your mic on mute for a second and I’m going to give you three seconds to do so,” Billingsley said to her students via webcam. “Mic on mute in three, two, one. Guys, I think I have the best class ever. What? You did that in three seconds. Good job!”
Runcie said while he wants students back in person as soon as possible, the safety and health of teachers and kids is the priority.
“We have chemistry, biology, physics, STEM and I believe that we need to pay attention to the science,” Runcie said. “We need to listen to our public health experts, our medical experts, which is what we do. And at the current time it isn’t safe for us to fully open our schools.”
“The moment we see the trend lines going in the right direction we will not hesitate for a moment to move forward to open our schools and get our kids back in our classrooms,” he said.
Catholic schools in Miami-Dade, Broward and Monroe run by the Archdiocese of Miami also began their school year fully online on Wednesday. Teachers in those schools were required to teach from their classrooms. Some schools asked students to wear their uniform shirt while on camera, and some schools gave out laptops to students.
“We’re trying to do whatever we can to make this feel like the child, the student is in the classroom,” said archdiocese spokeswoman Mary Ross Agosta. “It’s our intention…for the children to see their teacher in the classroom and be optimistic that this is only a temporary situation.”
Kelly Brandenburg moved her daughter from Tropical Elementary to Parkway Christian School for an in-person learning experience for second grade.
She said Tropical Elementary was high caliber, but online learning wasn’t ideal for her young daughter.
“We just struggled to maintain focus and my husband and I just felt like she was going to lose … that learning opportunity,” Brandenburg said.
She said her daughter loves being back in school.
“The school is bubbling,” said Bradenburg. “You can just tell the kids are… just so excited to be back to seeing people and getting away from their parents a little bit.”