Fairfax Co. school officials apologize for tech flub; company says software hadn’t been updated in 2 years

WTOP speaks to Scott Brabrand, superintendent of FCPS.

Leaders in Virginia’s largest school system — Fairfax County Public Schools — are apologizing and promising things will be better when students resume distance learning on Monday.

During a virtual school board meeting that focused on the mishaps and glitches in the distance learning experience, representatives from Blackboard, the system the county uses for online and distance learning, also repeatedly apologized for the platform’s performance, but told board members the school system hadn’t updated the software that runs the virtual system in two years.

The issues led the county to cancel online instruction for the rest of the week to get things back in order.

FCPS Superintendent Scott Brabrand told WTOP that he wanted to apologize to parents and students for the mishaps.

“We remain committed to making sure we’re going to get it right,” Brabrand said. “We’re going to recommit to getting distance learning right for the rest of the year here in Fairfax County Public Schools.”

Brabrand said he and his team were not aware of any potential security or technical issues ahead of the first day of virtual learning until they began to manifest.

“We did not foresee this, and I accept responsibility for not seeing this coming,” Brabrand said. “We’re working around the clock to make sure these software issues are not going to happen again.”

One of the biggest problems identified was simply the difficulty students and others had logging in to the system. In some cases, the servers couldn’t handle the number of simultaneous logins.

“There were challenges between the login servers and the application servers, and that’s where the logjam occurred,” said Maribeth Luftglass, the assistant superintendent in charge of information technology.

“Those login servers were resynchronized and rebalanced and then what happened the next day, is after lots of people were able to log in, that caused additional backlogs and logjams in the application servers,” which handle all the software, Luftglass said.

The other problem was identified by Blackboard’s Tim Tomlinson, the company’s chief product officer, who said the school system hadn’t updated the software as frequently as it should have in recent years.

“The practice that Fairfax County has used historically is they take updates once a year, they apply them in the summer, they take a downtime window in order to test them,” Tomlinson said. “For the last two years that has not happened. This system actually hasn’t been updated in two years. We recommend that all of our clients stay on the most current versions of our software. The version of the software that Fairfax County is running is three years old. Fairfax County has made the choice not to update that software.”

Luftglass said the county is already working to address that, telling the school board “the key recommendations from Blackboard since we’ve had all these problems is to do some patches that they have identified and used with other customers that we were unaware of,” she said. “Those are being processed and integrated into our application today — it started last night.”

She said a bigger update is going to be installed in June.

Another problem with the virtual learning system wasn’t widespread but was disruptive: Anonymous “guest” users sharing links in some online classrooms that led to pornographic or malicious content, some of which was anti-Semitic.

That happened primarily at the high school level.

“Because those links were shared, they were guest links, anybody could use those links to get into those sessions,” said Luftglass.

To deal with that issue, on Monday access will be restricted so that students will have to use their school-provided email address to enter the online classroom, and only students in that class will be allowed in.

“We did not emphasize that enough,” she said, about making sure teachers didn’t create sessions that allowed for guests to show up. “They can’t put in a fake name, they can’t put in a fake profile picture.”

“In some cases we had a couple of students that put in inappropriate profile pictures up,” she added. On Monday students won’t be allowed to use profile pictures, nor will they be allowed to set up chat dialogues that exclude the teacher leading the session.

Later in the board meeting there was additional news about the county’s contract with Blackboard, the company running the distance learning platforms and the subject of intense criticism recently.

Fairfax County leaders said the contract with Blackboard expires after the next school year and the county has already decided to sign a deal with Schoology to take over after July of 2021.

“So we plan to migrate to a different product and platform over the next two years,” said Luftglass.

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