The Failure of Fairfax County Public Schools

My son is a fifth grade student in the Fairfax County School System in Northern Virginia.  Like most students, he has been quarantined because of COVID-19.  I supported and continue to support this decision.  In fact, about an hour before the schools announced they were closing, I had already decided to pull him out of school myself.  I believe the schools were reasonable in how they handled the timing of the closing.

What was a little strange was that the schools announced they wouldn’t be opening for another month.  For the next three weeks the teachers would be trained on distance learning techniques, while the fourth was a planned Spring Break.  Easter Monday was a scheduled holiday, so it was with great excitement that my son logged into the scheduled Blackboard group chat on Tuesday.

It did not go well.  Because FCPS had sent out links that required no particular sign in to get on the chat, there were cases where trolls interrupted the chats with racist and obscene content.  This was not the case with my son’s class – with those kids, the chat would just cut off at random times.

That afternoon, the following was announced by the Superintendent of Schools, Scott Braband:

As a parent, I was less than thrilled to hear about this.  This was particularly the case when it turned out that the school system had failed to perform upgrades on its Blackboard servers for 20 months.  As predicted, Blackboard blamed FCPS for not doing the updates and FCPS blamed Blackboard for failing to force them to do the updates.  The superintendent apologized several more times, school board members sent apologetic emails, our principal sent apologetic emails, and the teacher sent an apology that sounded suspiciously like he wasn’t being told anything more than we were.

On Monday, the kids logged into Blackboard.  Again, it didn’t work.

This led to another series of apologies:

  • The superintendent let us know that he was really, really sorry about the whole thing.  Because of this disaster, there will no longer be face-to-face learning for the rest of the year.  We’re going to fire Blackboard because they were so bad.  In fact, he’s so serious about being sorry that he instituted a blue ribbon panel of experts from the tech industry to try to unravel the mystery of how this could have gone wrong.  Who could have seen it coming?
  • The principal sent a letter explaining that, due to the screwups, there would no longer be face-to-face learning for the rest of the year, plus the other stuff above.  He also expressed how proud he was of his teachers and our school community.  Of course, they hadn’t caused the problem and had no ability to solve the underlying problem, but he left that part out.  For the rest of the year, assignments will be posted on Google classroom.
  • The teacher sent a letter repeating what the principal said, leaving out the part about how great the teachers were.  He promised to put stuff up on Google classroom.

Oh, one thing I forgot to mention:  None of the work given to the kids will be turned in to the teacher or graded in any way.  I’m sure this won’t cause the kids to take it less seriously.

Let’s sum up the above in a few bullet points:

  • The school closed because of COVID-19.
  • The school stopped instruction entirely for a month to train the teachers.
  • The first attempt to teach caused total anarchy, which everybody blamed on everybody else.
  • The second attempt to teach caused technical failures, which everybody blamed on everybody else.
  • Google classroom is now the teacher.

Except in the case of my son.  I, and many other parents, started teaching our kids the best we could once school stopped.  We’ve done math via Khan Academy, we’ve been reading Earth Abides for our literature “class”, we’ve done science using pure inquiry, we’ve had music and computer “specials”, we’ve had spelling and grammar practice, and he’s got a creative writing project where he’s making his own SCP.  He’s told me that he’s learning more at home than he ever did at school, and that he spends a lot more time learning at home, too.

The school system will undoubtedly take another crack at distance learning this year.  They’ll fix the system to find that it’s still broken.  They’ll spend my tax dollars on experts who study the problem without coming to any conclusions.  And they’ll ultimately  search for the guilty, punish the innocent, and reward the uninvolved.

Addendum:  While I was writing this, I got an email from FCPS that claimed to have “Five Things To Know This Week.”  The first?  “Distance Learning Continues.”  I guess they didn’t get the memo.

Addendum 2:  As of next week, we will have finished Earth Abides and will start reading Shambling Toward Hiroshima by James Morrow.  I recommend you do the same if you’re in the same boat I am.

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