On this last episode, we look back on 23 years of joyous, difficult and always informative conversation.
Due to the coronavirus, schools in Virginia were ordered to close on March 16. As the weeks went by, school districts across the region were rolling out their distance learning programs. Every school district has had their challenges, but one district has struggled greatly with the virtual side of distance learning: Fairfax County Public Schools.
With nearly 190,000 students, FCPS is the largest school system in the region. Fairfax County is also one of the richest counties, not just in our area, but in the country. So why has a school system with so many resources struggled to provide adequate distance learning to its students?
Produced by Kurt Gardinier
KOJO NNAMDIYou're tuned in to The Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU 88.5. I'm broadcasting from home. Welcome. Later in the broadcast we'll talk with restaurant owners about how to be a better restaurant customer during the pandemic and we'll find out how one local hotel is using its empty rooms in a unique manner.
KOJO NNAMDIBut first due to the pandemic schools in Virginia were ordered closed on March 16th. Districts across the region scrambled to roll out distance learning programs. Every school district has had its challenges, but Fairfax County Public Schools has had a particularly bumpy go at it. With nearly 190,000 students, the FCPS is the largest district in the region. But Fairfax County is also one of the richest counties not just in the area, but in the country. So why has a school system with so many resources struggled to provide adequate distance learning to its students? Joining us now is Debbie Truong. Debbie Truong is WAMU's Education Reporter. Debbie, thank you for joining us.
DEBBIE TRUONGThank you for having me.
NNAMDIDebbie, you've been reporting on how schools systems in the area have created their distance learning programs. Can you walk us through some of the successes and failures of Fairfax County's roll out?
TRUONGSure. Um, so I guess I'll start at the beginning. Governor Ralph Northam, of course, ordered all schools closed in Virginia in the middle of March. He initially said that closure would last for two weeks, but that, of course, later extended to through the end of the school year. During this time school systems across Virginia and really across the country were figuring out how to provide distance learning for students.
TRUONGIn Fairfax County, the public school system officially began distance learning on April 14th. Even though some teachers up until that point may have given students some optional learning materials and really a key part of that learning experience was supposed to include the ability for students to log onto Blackboard, an online learning platform and receive virtual on camera live instruction from teachers, but on the first day of learning teachers quickly encountered some issues.
TRUONGYou know, students were logging onto virtual classrooms anonymously and they were using inappropriate and offensive usernames. The president of the Fairfax Education Association, which represents teachers in the District told me that one teacher had messaged her the morning of the roll out and said that a couple of students in her classroom had verbally attacked her.
TRUONGAnd then there were tech glitches. Some students weren't able to log on to Blackboard to access their classrooms. Others were prompted several times to refresh their page and still couldn't get in. And these problems led the school system to cancel classes for two days in the first week of instruction. The school district, you know, said that they had failed to make upgrades to Blackboard and spent a weekend making some of those upgrades, but the problems persisted last week. And so students still weren't able to log on and get that live one on one instruction from their teachers.
NNAMDIJoining us now is Scott Brabrand, the Superintendent at Fairfax County Public Schools. Scott Brabrand, thank you for joining us.
SCOTT BRABRANDNo, Kojo, it's great to be with you. Thank you for having me this afternoon.
NNAMDIWhat went wrong with the Blackboard platform and distance learning in your district? We just heard about some of the problems from Debbie Truong.
BRABRANDWell, one of the things I want to talk about is what went right. From the very first day on the 14th we did provide what we call asynchronize instruction. We had prerecorded videos. We had emails to kids. We had lesson plans up for kids to look at. We mailed out learning packets from Kindergarten to eighth grade. But Debbie is right that our face to face instruction, which is a big part of what we wanted to do in addition to all of the other asynchronize instruction that was going on. That we had some security issues.
BRABRANDAnd the bottom line is we didn't do the links -- the individual link for the kid to log in as securely as we needed to. And then based on advice from our vendor we went to a new platform that didn’t have security issues. It was a secure platform, but it had capacity or volume issues. So we changed our platform and then experienced a different problem.
BRABRANDAnd we've had to go back and now we are back on the link issue, but we've done them securely with teachers creating a secure link for every child. We had over 150,000 attendees yesterday on with 36,000 sessions, which was almost double the amount than on Friday. So we're headed in the right direction with face to face learning now, but there's no doubt that it was a bumpy start to face to face. We've learned our lessons and we're moving forward, because we recognize that in this environment distance learning is going to be with us for a while here in the DMV region.
NNAMDIOther districts were using software like Zoom or Google Meet pretty successfully. Why did you stick with Blackboard for so long?
BRABRANDWell, Blackboard had been our 20 year partner. We had been with them for, again, two decades. We believed that we had the right infrastructure that would be able to work. And part of the problem is the way we created the links. If we had created the links right the first time they would have had secure links each student. We wouldn't have had those security issues that we talked about. And instead we migrated over to a platform that was also part of Blackboard, but it was simply not ready to hold the load even after we tried to take it down and do some patchwork and updates. It still wasn't able to hold the load.
BRABRANDSo we're back on another Blackboard product that we originally started with, but we've created the links securely. And we have had really two amazing great days of learning this week. And I expect it to continue for the remainder of the fourth quarter here as we close out the school year and get ready for summer learning and for return to school and what that will look like.
NNAMDIThere have been reports that the Blackboard platform that your schools were using hadn't been updated in over two years. And last week the head of IT in your district stepped down. Was the IT Department the problem here?
BRABRANDWell, you know, I'm not going to talk about personnel matters publically. I'll say I as superintendent am accountable for everything that happens in this school district. And I've made sure that our leadership team is accountable and that I'm accountable for what has happened. We've learned a lot of lessons. We've made some changes and we're headed in the right direction moving forward.
NNAMDIYesterday you allowed teachers to use the Google Meet to teach their classes. How did that go?
BRABRANDYes. That was good. You know, the irony in all of this is really making sure that we're listening to our teachers and our teachers have gone above and beyond in Fairfax County Public Schools. We have the best and brightest teachers here in Fairfax. That's why people for years, for decades have come here. Half of our teachers even prior to COVID-19 were using the Google platform and using it successfully. And we gave those teachers permission after we had some of these challenges with Blackboard to use Google. And our initial indications are about 25 percent of our teaching staff is using Google Meets as an alternative platform and that it's going well.
NNAMDIIn case you're just joining us we're talking about Fairfax County and distance learning and inviting your calls at 800-433-8850. Here's Michael in Alexandria, Virginia. Michael, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MICHAELThanks so much. How are you doing?
MICHAELSo, you know, speaking to the person when I initially dialed in so I have an interesting perspective. I'm the parent to two FCPS students, seventh grade and third grade. But I also run a tutoring facility in Alexandria, Virginia as well, one that has been here for about 30 years. So we're, you know, kind of seeing this from multiple sides. As a parent certainly I'm frustrated that the kids haven't been able to be online. We know we have great teachers and they've worked very hard, but we've struggled like many parents just to try to keep them engaged with their work to keep some type of daily activity.
MICHAELAnd from the tutoring side of it, you know, we often see students who are already struggling. But we're getting information and calls from parents now from kind of a different vantage point of, we want to get comfortable with distance learning. And we've been doing distance learning pretty much since about mid-March with our students to adjust. We were always an in center face to face learning institution, but now we've gone to distance learning ourselves. So we're trying to help the kids get used to learning this way.
MICHAELBut we're also seeing parents who are just concerned. Hey my child is not necessarily behind, but we're concerned about falling behind as well. So it's a very interesting time as a parent and as an educator.
NNAMDIWell, you're a aren't and I'm glad you mentioned parents because joining us now is Jane Miscavage, the President of the Fairfax County Council PTA. Jane Miscavage, thank you for joining us.
JANE MISCAVAGEThanks for having me. And if I could just give a quick shout out, we love our Fairfax County Public School teachers and staff. They've just been incredible through this journey.
NNAMDIWhat has the role of the PTA been throughout all of this and how have the teachers and parents been dealing with the technical issues and frustrations. We just heard from Michael.
MISCAVAGEWell, the first thing that the PTAs did was they moved fast to try to keep their communities connected. Recognizing that we were in a crisis and the bottom seemed to be falling out, we realized that people still need to be connected and need to have a sense of purpose. So we continued to have our PTA meetings and through that and through our Facebook groups and staying in touch with our communities, we've been able to kind of keep an ear out for what's happening on the ground, what families need and try to just be that extra conduit for information exchange with our schools and the school system.
NNAMDIWhat have you been hearing from teachers in Fairfax about teaching remotely?
MISCAVAGEI know for teachers, any teacher who is receiving a paycheck from FCPS has probably not slept in the past month and a half. They have been trying everything they can to stay in touch with their students. And it differs by teacher and by student. But some teachers have sent emails to students. I know some principals are tweeting messages of inspiration. Teachers are trying to do read-alongs online.
MISCAVAGESo teachers have been trying different things that way. As far as the roll out of the face to face distance learning I think they're trying. I mean, right now since Dr. Brabrand has given them permission to use what they know and what they're familiar with I think they've been able to really help turn the corner and improve that face to face instruction.
NNAMDIHere's Amy in Burk, Virginia. Amy, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
AMYHi, Kojo. I just wanted reiterate what a wonderful job the teachers have been doing. I have a third grader and she has spoken on the phone with her teacher numerous times. And despite the technical problems that the county has been facing the teachers have been making sure that the students have access to work that they can be doing whether its mailed at home or any sort of websites or applications that are fun and educational. So although the technical problems have been frustrating I've been so impressed with the teachers and how hard they're working.
NNAMDIAmy, thank you very much for sharing that with us. We're going to take a short break. But if you've called stay on the line, we will get to your calls. If you'd like to call the number is 800-433-8850. Are you a parent of a Fairfax County student? What has your experience been with distance learning and what are you hoping for? 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're discussing distance learning in Fairfax County Public Schools with Debbie Truong, WAMU's Education Reporter. Scott Brabrand is the Superintendent of the Fairfax County Public Schools. And Jane Miscavage is the President of the Fairfax County Council PTA. Jane Miscavage, you and other PTA presidents had a Q & A with Superintendent Brabrand last night. How did that go? I'd like to hear from both you on that, but first you, Jane Miscavage.
MISCAVAGEYou know, it went really well. We've had feedback from presidents since that session that last. And they are feeling very heard. And anyone who would like to see that Q & A session, it's available on our website at fccpta.org. And what we tried to cover PTA presidents submitted 200 questions that they've been hearing from their communities. And we organized our talk into a quick look back. Just, you know, why did it take so long to get the face to face learning up and going? But also looking forward because it doesn't look like school is going to going to be the same for quite a while to come. And so we wanted to understand insights into how is the plan being shaped moving forward and where do parents have a role in plugging in their input.
NNAMDISuperintendent Brabrand, your take on the same meeting.
BRABRANDNo, I think Jane's leadership and pulling together all the PTA presidents across our almost 200 schools was impressive. Our community, our school board, the Fairfax County School Board, expects accountability and transparency from its school system. And this is one way to provide answering the questions, making sure people understand what we did well and what we fell short on and then talking about our plans to move forward and get it to the level that it needs to be.
BRABRANDSo I'm actually working through Jane's leadership working with a group called SEPTA, which is a special education PTA that formed a few years ago. And I'll be meeting with them in Town Hall next week as well. And Jane and I have already talked about doing more frequent Town Halls as we're in this COVID-19 crisis so that there's direct communication from the system, to our parents and that they can feel that their input is heard. Not just now as we've stood up face to face learning, but moving forward. As Jane said COVID-19 is not going away. What does the future of school look for the summer and for next year and do we have the parent input, the community input into what that looks like.
NNAMDIDebbie Truong, you have spoken with Fairfax County students and parents. How are students handling the challenges with distance learning?
TRUONGI think one of the biggest frustrations for students and for families with the way that live instruction has gone is that they haven't been able to see their teachers and their classmates in quite a long time. We're going on I think more than six weeks at this point since, you know, we began social distancing. And so I think students are really missing that sort of interpersonal conversation and that social interaction that school really provides, but there have been alternatives to the live instruction.
TRUONGYou know, even with the issues with the technology students have been given other learning materials as Superintendent Brabrand said and another caller had mentioned. The school system is also providing programs to elementary school students on its cable television channel. I know some paper packets have also been sent home. And for those students who may have missed lessons that were happening virtually teachers are uploading those videos online. And so the students can go back and watch them later. But I really think that one of the hardest parts to this for students is that lack of connection to others.
NNAMDIHere's Javier in Fairfax County. Javier, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JAVIERHi. Great. Thanks very much for the opportunity. So I just have a concern overall. My daughter is a freshman in high school here in Fairfax County. And so she's been doing a lot of outreach trying to connect to her teachers, trying to understand what's going on. And of the six teachers, unfortunately, she's only heard back from one. So I realize that there's a lot of priorities and things that they have to do. But we're talking about a lot of student engagement. So I'm just curious why they can't hit reply to an email that she's sending them.
NNAMDIAny answer for that, Superintendent Brabrand?
BRABRANDYes. You know, I'm sorry to hear that Javier. If that's happening, I really encourage you obviously to reach out to the teacher first and if you're not getting a response to the principal. And let the principal work to resolve that issue. We also have region assistant superintendents for all of our schools. If the principal and you can't get that corrected, our region assistant superintendent office can support it. And we also have -- we created two years ago an ombudsmen's office for parents, who want really a third party neutral arbitrator to come in if it's a particularly difficult issue.
BRABRANDBut this one about just simply reaching out to your child that's not the expectation we've shared with our teachers. The great majority of our teachers are going above and beyond. Reach out to that teacher and then to the principal, and if not seek additional support from the region assistant superintendent office or the ombudsmen.
NNAMDIWe heard from Steve from Fairfax County who couldn't stay on the line. But he wanted to ask, "Fairfax County teachers have the ability to use multiple different platforms. But there's no mandate to use them consistently. The students can't keep track. Why not mandate what the teachers use instead of giving them free reign?" And then here is Dilly in Fairfax County. Dilly, your turn.
DILLYHey, thank you for taking my call, Kojo. I live in Fairfax City with -- of course, under Fairfax County Public School system. And my question to Mr. Brabrand is a twofold. One is I've been talking to some parents and some teachers about the consistency between the schools and there have been -- each school has a different way of teaching. And some schools (unintelligible) and some schools seem to like be providing online education. My daughter goes to elementary school. And it's not consistent. Every day, every week the instructions are changing. And I also talk to teachers.
NNAMDIYou're breaking up a little bit on me, Dilly. What you seem to be saying is similar to what Steve was saying is that there's a lack of consistency. How do you respond to that, Superintendent Brabrand?
BRABRANDWell, we want to make sure there is consistency. We did share as part of the distance learning plan what were expectations across our schools to provide lessons and materials and to provide live face to face instruction. We have made those communications clear. We did over really 250 classes when we were preparing teachers. We have 15,000 teachers. And if there is an issue of consistency reach out to that teacher and then reach to the principal. We want to make sure every parent is feeling satisfied that their child is getting that connection that Debbie talked about.
BRABRANDAnd that's why face to face is so important, getting a chance to see someone even if it's in a virtual environment to see a classmate to see a teacher is part of what is helping sustain our community during this COVID-19 crisis. So I would say parents that are still having those frustrations reach out to that teacher, reach out to the principal, and we will get it resolved.
NNAMDIJane Miscavage, what will Fairfax County's PTA role be in going forward? If parents and students can't be in school buildings for some length of time as you indicated earlier, what kind of initiatives will the PTA be taking on?
MISCAVAGEWe'll really try to step up our role as that conduit for two way communication. And it's really important that we continue to remind parents that they are not alone. I mean, parents, it's here and it's across the country. But parents who now have children I their home are just trapped in an impossible situation, especially those parents who have to work outside the home or who have to get their job done while they're trying to share their bandwidth and their attention with their kid.
MISCAVAGESo one thing I would like to say at this point is if you are a parent and you feel like you're about to go over the edge or you are really losing your temper please check out the parent resource center on fcps.edu. Our school system has great resources for parents. And then Fairfax County just launched a new parent support line as well.
NNAMDII'll let Jillian in Fairfax have the last work. Jillian, you only have about 40 seconds, but go ahead, please.
JILLIANOkay. I have a TikTok and a YouTube that I started during this whole journey. I haven't really been able to connect with my students online just yet. I know that we'll be doing that tomorrow, but I have been able to post lessons of myself and I make sure that I definitely am listening and talking to my students as much as possible during this time. They have a lot of questions. And some of them still can't access it, but we're working on that and we're reaching out to them as much as possible, but it is definitely my number one priority to be able to hear from them.
NNAMDIJillian, good for you. Scott Brabrand, Jane Miscavage, Debbie Truong thank you all for joining us. We're going to take a short break. When we come back we'll be talking with restaurant owners about how to be a better restaurant customer during the pandemic. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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