Virtual start to DC-area schools comes with some problems

Empty school hallway with a 'back to school' banner
The hallways are empty as the new school year begins at Cooper Lane Elementary School in Landover Hills, Maryland. (WTOP/Neal Augenstein)

Hundreds of thousands of students in some of the D.C. region’s largest school systems went back to class virtually Monday, but technology problems plagued some areas.

Students in Maryland’s Montgomery, Prince George’s, Frederick, Charles and St. Mary’s counties logged on for classes. In Virginia, Manassas City Public Schools and Stafford County Public Schools also returned, as did students in D.C.

Many school systems issued laptops to all students to ensure they have the equipment they need, and students would be online for about five and a half hours of instruction.

But, in some school districts, the morning did not start off smoothly.

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Many students in Charles County, Maryland, were unable to log in to the first day of classes after trouble with the online student learning system StudentVue.

Charles County Public Schools spokeswoman Katie O’Malley-Simpson described the situation as a systemwide outage on the new learning platform.

Charles County Public Schools later said that both StudentVue and ParentVue were “back up and running” in an email sent to WTOP at 10:27 a.m. The school system suggested that students and parents may need to refresh their web browsers before trying to log in again.

CCPS, which said it did not anticipate “any more issues,” added it “will excuse any student absences caused by today’s log in issues.”

In Montgomery County, where roughly 163,000 students returned, public schools spokeswoman Gboyinde Onijala told WTOP in an email at 9:45 a.m. that “parents are experiencing a bit of a delay getting in but we are told things are up and running now.”

“We have shared information on our website and teachers are also sending messages,” said Onijala.

Montgomery County Deputy Superintendent of Schools Monifa B. McKnight told WTOP Monday morning that the school system learned a lot after it quickly moved classes online last spring during the COVID-19 pandemic, and those lessons will be applied to this school year.

Teachers have undergone more professional training to teach online.

“We’re providing the virtual experience and parents should expect to see all of our subjects, math literacy, special education needs, all services, social studies, science, art, music, P.E. — you name it, every extracurricular activity, everything that we’ve been able to offer the traditional school year. We are doing that this fall, and we’re excited about it,” McKnight said. “And we’ve invested a lot of time and commitment into providing professional learning for our teachers to prepare them for this.”

Prince George’s County Public Schools sent a tweet after 9 a.m. that it was “aware of isolated technological problems with Zoom. At 9:39 a.m., the school system tweeted that the “problems have been resolved.”

PGCPS came up with a list of etiquette tips for parents during distance learning, reminding parents that online classroom time wasn’t time for parents to ask teachers questions or to interrupt teachers.

The school system also launched other resources to help parents, including a hotline to help troubleshoot problems.

“Our board of education is fully supportive of us moving to learning to virtual learning, and ultimately it’s up to them,” Prince George’s County Public Schools CEO Monica Goldson said.

Most of the county’s teachers are working from home, but not all.

“We provided teachers with their opportunity to come back into their school classroom to work, if they so choose,” said Goldson, who adds that COVID-19 tracing is being done for employees working in school facilities.

With D.C. Public Schools, there were reports of some parents struggling with the technology on the first day. Chancellor Lewis Ferebee said in a video message on Twitter, “We recognize that some students may be experiencing issues with using their device or accessing our online learning platforms.”

He said the school system would update parents on any issues that came up on the first day of school. D.C. families who still need a device for their child can fill out an online form.

“We encourage families to continue to work with our schools if they’re having any other challenges related to our learning platform Canvas,” Ferebee said. “We thank you for your patience.”

A number of other school systems in Maryland and Virginia head back to virtual classes after Labor Day.

An upsetting transition

For kids, the transition to a new school year online may be frustrating or upsetting.

Counselors such as Erin VanLuven, a licensed clinical social worker with Kaiser Permanente in Maryland, suggested staying calm and establishing a regular routine.

WTOP’s Kate Ryan, Melissa Howell, Neal Augenstein and Jose Umana contributed to this report.

Matt Small

Matt joined WTOP News at the start of 2020, after contributing to Washington’s top news outlet as an Associated Press journalist for nearly 18 years.

Colleen Kelleher

Colleen Kelleher is an award-winning journalist who has been with WTOP since 1996. Kelleher joined WTOP as the afternoon radio writer and night and weekend editor and made the move to in 2001. Now she works early mornings as the site's Senior Digital Editor.

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