Schools that recently reopened to on-site learning and then abruptly closed when Covid-19 cases among students and staff spiked were caught flat-footed when they had to fall back on remote learning. This should never have happened. By buying into the Trump and (Education Secretary) Betsy DeVos pressure to reopen to onsite learning and their politicizing of education at the expense of sound and safe policies, schools hung themselves out to dry.
Equity gaps and disdain for health and safety are only two of the three problems schools are encountering. Technological complexity is the other. In many jurisdictions, even prosperous ones where education is highly valued and adequately funded, technological failures have been rife. In Arlington, Virginia, one of the nation’s wealthiest communities with one of the top-rated schools systems, students were unable to access their classrooms remotely on the first day of school. There was no excuse for a technology collapse when the school system had months to prepare for the new academic year and ample opportunity to make sure its technology platform was up to speed. The superintendent said the connectivity problem was due to a firewall issue related to the large volume of traffic trying to access Microsoft Teams at the same time. How this was not anticipated bespeaks a failure that should have been foreseen and dealt with long before the beginning of the school year.
In neighboring Fairfax County, also a premier educational mecca and the 11th largest school district in the U.S., the first week of school was marred by a ransomware attack that may have compromised the personal information of thousands of students and their families. This was apparently part of a coordinated cyberattack on school systems nationwide. While it is a sad commentary on the world we currently inhabit, this kind of disruption was also predictable and should have been guarded against. The fact that it was not is an indictment of school system technology offices and their leadership. Unless we commit to doing more than paying lip service to the importance of education, we condemn ourselves and our children to a second-rate experience that has no place in an advanced, industrialized country that must compete with the rest of the world.
Arlington and Fairfax Counties are just the tip of the technology failure iceberg. Ransomware and malware attacks shut down learning in California, New Jersey, Nevada and Ohio. A number of school districts have had to recall thousands of devices they had distributed to students in order to resolve problems. Preventing stuff like this from happening should be the highest priority at a time when distance learning is the only solution. This requires taking technology seriously and committing sufficient resources to securing both the best state-of-the-art equipment, inexpensive broadband available to all, and the best people to design, implement, coordinate, manage and troubleshoot these systems. In the absence of national planning and support, these responsibilities fall upon state and local governments and school systems.
Unpreparedness is only one aspect of the technology problem. The principal technology schools use—virtual teleconferencing—is unable to work with any of the other key components necessary for a viable distance educational experience: content management systems, assignment organization, interactivity, reading comprehension, etc. This requires teachers, students and even parents to become IT experts if they have any hope of student success. Teachers are overwhelmed with the volume of information thrown at them, much of it technical and impossible to follow.
The rest of the world’s advanced economies have experienced few problems implementing remote learning. This is yet another core area where the U.S. earns a failing grade to go along with its failures to contain and mitigate the pandemic, revive its depressed economy and provide sufficient relief to the tens of millions of Americans abandoned by our government’s incompetence and ideological cravenness.
We needed a national policy framework that school districts could follow for the suggested types of software and the interoperability between them. Once again, Donald Trump was not up to the task. Teachers, students and parents deserve better.
September 18, 2020