- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 26, 2020

The Fairfax County Public Schools system has failed twice in as many weeks to properly employ a distance learning app for its nearly 200,000 students under a statewide stay-at-home order, despite weeks of testing and assessing the program.

The repeated failure has prompted the departure of the school district’s chief technology officer, the formation of an advisory panel of outside technology experts — and questions about how one of the largest and richest school systems could be so ill-prepared to provide distance education.

“In promising that we would be able to offer remote learning to all 189,000 students simultaneously, we likely over-promised,” said schools spokeswoman Lucy Caldwell. “We have now moved on and are offering other options for teachers and students to connect.”

Schools Superintendent Scott Braband told technology staffers Wednesday that Maribeth Luftglass, assistant superintendent of the department of information technology for the school district, had stepped down, news outlets reported. The school district did not provide an official statement on Ms. Luftglass, who resigned after having served 21 years in the system.

Her resignation came after students were unable to log in on the remote learning app Blackboard last Monday, the second time in two weeks the program could not deliver face-to-face instruction between teachers and students.

The program had been tested for four weeks before online learning was set to begin on April 14 and the firm that operates Blackboard had assured school officials it could handle the increased online traffic of the county’s students and teachers, Ms. Caldwell said. Still there were “widespread” issues with the program on that first day of distance learning, she said.

“The testing to ensure that the system would be reliable and able to provide face to face teaching was incomplete,” Ms. Caldwell said in an email. “And when the day came to turn it on, and all users logged on simultaneously, the capacity wasn’t there. But face-to-face was just one aspect (albeit a popular aspect) of learning.”

Mr. Braband postponed teacher-led instruction for the rest of that week so that Blackboard could resolve the technical issues. But when face-to-face learning was to resume on April 20, Blackboard could not apply its “software patches,” Ms. Caldwell said, adding that officials decided last Monday to move on to other means of distance learning.

The superintendent subsequently tapped Bobbie Kilberg, president and CEO of the Northern Virginia Technology Council; Andrew Ko, managing director of global education at Amazon Web Services; and Amy Gilliland, president of General Dynamics IT, to serve on his technology advisory council. The panel willl advise Mr. Braband on best practices and emerging educational technology.

Ms. Kilberg declined a request for comment.

In addition, Mr. Braband retained the law firm Hunton Andrews Kurth to review and report on the school district’s roll out of online learning.

“Despite some notions, allow me to stress that the learning never stopped,” Ms. Caldwell said in an email. “Our teachers continued to connect with students, and to encourage them through these tough times.”

In the meantime, teachers have emailed and called students, pre-recorded lessons and used Google Classrooms, Blackboard Collaborate Ultra, learning packets, ebooks and educational programming on public access cable channels 21, 25 and 99.

One Fairfax County parent, who requested anonymity because their spouse works in the state govnerment, said this has been a frustrating experience due to a lack of clear information.

“In totality, it seemed kinda nebulous, like, ‘We are working on a plan but not [sharing] a lot of details,’” the parent said. “That was OK until the plan didn’t work the first time or the second time.”

Steve Knotts, chairman of the county’s Republican committee, said he thinks the district put too much focus on bureaucracy when it should focus on education first.

“There seems to be more attention given to things that aren’t important when the schools are shut down,” Mr. Knotts said. “Hiring an outside consulting firm to investigate their failure before it’s over just really seems out of place.”

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam closed schools in March in an effort to stop the spread of the coronavirus.

• Sophie Kaplan can be reached at skaplan@washingtontimes.com.

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