Parents take on new role as schools return online: tech support

Technical issues and cyberattacks are disrupting the start of a new school year as millions of students across the United States log on to classes through online platforms. Learning continues to be virtual for many schools because of the coronavirus.

Joe Cavaretta/South Florida Sun-Sentinel/AP
Andrew Burstein, 13, logs onto class online from his home in Florida on the first day back for Palm Beach County Schools on Aug. 31, 2020. He said it took about an hour to log into school, but faced no further issues after the delay.

As millions of American students start the school year with online classes at home because of the coronavirus, they are running into technical glitches and other difficulties that have thrust many a harried parent into the role of teacher’s aide and tech support person.

A ransomware attack forced schools in Hartford, Connecticut, to postpone the start of online and in-person classes this week. Seattle’s system crashed last week, and a Zoom outage caused it to shut down for more than two hours in August. An online learning program used in Alabama and other places recently crashed. North Carolina’s platform went down on the first day of classes last month.

Amanda Mills’ 8-year-old son, Rowan, woke up excited Tuesday to start his first day of third grade, even though it was online through Idaho’s largest school district, based in the town of Meridian just outside Boise.

They had practiced logging in and accessing the software the day before, and everything had seemed to go smoothly. But then on the first day, some of the websites the West Ada School District was using were running slowly, and a national outage of the online learning interface Blackboard prevented many kids from accessing their classes at all.

“Whatever happens, we’ll figure it out and we’ll make it work however we can, and rely on the patience of those teachers who are up against their own obstacles,” said Ms. Mills. “It’s a weird, wild world right now.”

Erik Rasmussen, a Falls Church, Virginia, resident who has three children taking online classes, said he regularly copes with computer glitches and short attention spans. The divorced dad has his children half the time.

“You put your kids in front of the computer, and then I go to do my work, but kids are kids – they’re going to turn off the video function and start playing a game,” he said.

Summer break gave school districts time to iron out kinks that cropped up when the virus forced them to switch to online classes in the spring. But the new school year already has been set back by some of the same problems, with no end in sight to the outbreak that has infected more than 6.3 million people and killed 189,000 in the United States.

Florida’s largest school district, in Miami-Dade County, had assured parents that it had consolidated different programs into one platform that would be easier to navigate. But software glitches and cyberattacks disrupted the first week of the new school year that started Aug. 31.

A high school student was arrested and accused of orchestrating a series of network outages. School administrators believe other people may be doing the same.

Christy Rodriguez said her third- and fourth-grade boys’ classes struggled with connection problems during the first week of school.

“Four full days were lost,” she said. “Either somebody is not able to go on, or the screen goes blank, or the teacher can’t hear the kids, so the teacher then just logs off and then sends a message to the parents.”

Ms. Rodriguez said she has been forced to work until late at night because her children need help fixing connection problems.

“The teachers are frustrated. The kids are frustrated. I hope that they soon open up schools,” she said.

Another parent, Alessandra Martinez, said her 7-year-old son has struggled with logins, passwords and connection problems. He had a meltdown on Friday when he was moved to a smaller breakout group but didn’t see the teacher and didn’t know what he was supposed to be doing.

“At their age, everything is amplified, and it feels like a big deal,” Ms. Martinez said.

Ms. Martinez said she was against the school district using a product commonly employed by parents who homeschool.

“This is a homeschooling program, but for parents who are working from home and have multiple children, it is a bit overwhelming,” she said. “We have this set up as a one-size-fits-all, and it doesn’t work for everybody.”

Some school districts have opted for a mix on online and in-person instruction. The school year started on Aug. 13 in Shelby County, Alabama, where about one-quarter of the students have been doing virtual learning, while about three-quarters have been doing in-person instruction for two days and remote learning for three days.

Students will be able to do five-day-a-week in-person instruction starting on Sept. 14 if their parents choose. Parents can opt for fully virtual learning instead.

“It was our intention all along that we wanted to have a cautious start,” said Shelby County schools spokeswoman Cindy Warner.

“Along the way, we’ve monitored our data and looked at the state and county data to make sure that the number of cases have remained low.”

In Hartford, where the first day of school was supposed to be Tuesday, a new start date has not been announced. The ransomware attack crippled critical systems, including one used to supply transportation routes to a school bus company.

Parents were upset at what they called the last-minute notice of the delay, noting officials knew about the problem since the weekend.

Kate Court said her 13-year-old son was already dressed and ready to go to the bus stop when she learned of the postponement. The shipping warehouse employee counted herself lucky that her mother could watch over the teen and his younger brother so she didn’t have to miss work.

“This is crazy,” Ms. Court said. “We’re looking for normalcy again, whatever that may be.”

This story was reported by The Associated Press. Rebecca Boone reported from Boise, Idaho. Associated Press writer R.J. Rico in Atlanta contributed to this report.

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