Catherine Campbell has been a teacher for more than three decades. But leading classes online last week had her feeling like “a goober.”
On Wednesday, with a full class of North Kitsap High School students in Poulsbo on a Zoom call, Campbell frantically troubleshooted her computer webcam with her school district’s IT department with no success. She ended up teaching three classes with a document camera — designed to capture papers and static objects — pointed at her face instead, choppily recording her movements. Students sent her encouraging messages, promising her they’d stay on the call.
“It’s like being a Broadway star,” said Campbell. “When it’s showtime, whether or not you have the right shoes on, you gotta go.”
There were big and small moments like this across the Puget Sound region and country, part of the growing pains of converting school to a screen. Over the past week, as many students logged on for their first classes, school districts and families spent time in tech-support mode, tending to an array of technical hiccups. Some reported success while others reported sorrow.
A few of the issues — a frozen computer here, a missed notification there — resolved themselves with a bit of good humor and a software update. Others, like overloaded servers in Seattle, or lack of closed captioning on Zoom in Everett, will require more attention in the weeks to come. Home internet access still remains one of the biggest issues, said John Krull, a school district IT consultant and former technology chief at Seattle Public Schools (SPS).
Some of the challenges districts faced could’ve been avoided with more preparation, national experts argue. Many districts planned for a different reality, one in which coronavirus case counts were projected low enough to resume some in-person schooling.
“To me, it does seem unacceptable (that there wasn’t more focus early on),” said Krull. “But people do need to have a little bit of patience.”
In Seattle, which will start core instruction Monday after a week-long soft start, the school district’s servers were overloaded with traffic, which booted many students out of class calls. The district said 25,680 students were engaged on the second day of school, about half of the district’s enrollment. The number measures log-ons from district-issued devices, email activity and use of applications such as Microsoft Teams. It does not include students who log on from a personal device. Thousands of SPS elementary school kids were still waiting on iPads.
On Facebook, teachers and parents aired their grievances about Microsoft Teams, the district’s video-conferencing platform of choice.
“There are hundreds of moving parts to this and our [tech] team, as well as our student support, curriculum and academics teams, deserve gratitude and ‘a job well done’ as they have worked tirelessly to create and continually improve this new, complex framework,” said SPS spokesperson Tim Robinson.
Specific complaints about Microsoft Teams pertained to an apparent challenge with muting participants, creating breakout rooms and disabling the chat function, an urgent issue when inappropriate messaging disrupted some class introductions and forced administrators to shut down large meetings.
Hosts and moderators have the ability to disable chat windows and mute participants, said Microsoft representative Suzie Giacomelli. The company plans to release a breakout room feature “this fall,” but did not provide a definitive timeline.
The challenges went both ways: Teachers like Campbell — who uploads nine videos a week for her students — are learning how to adapt to technology on the fly, and students and parents are struggling to make the software and hardware work.
“Friday ended with myself and two out of the three of my children in tears,” said Kari Morton.
Morton bounces back and forth between Wyatt in first grade, Olivia in third grade and Anthony in fifth grade — all students at Wildwood Elementary in Puyallup — until she’s out of energy for the day.
They usually make it about two and half hours before closing their laptops. “After that, everybody is upset,” she said.
The hardest part, Morton said, has been getting acquainted with the systems Schoolology and Clever and the laptops the district provided. Two days before school started, the district sent out “about 10 to 12 videos” with instructions on how to navigate the learning platforms.
Morton works nights at a local hospital in the operating room. “I wish I could say I made time to watch, but I didn’t.”
A training session the principal at Maywood Middle in Issaquah provided three weeks before the start of school made all the difference for the Sung family.
“She walked us through the system and gave us plenty of time to learn,” said Estrella Sung.
The school is using Canvas, a system similar to Microsoft Teams, that lets students access video conferences, discussions, assignments and grades.
“Sometimes it was hard to find the links to my Zoom classes,” said eighth grader Brandon Sung, but he hasn’t experienced any major issues with the platform.
In Everett, Jazmine Giffen spent the first week trying to figure out how to turn on closed captioning for her daughter, Maybelle, who has a hearing disability. Screen sharing with the teacher didn’t help them figure out how to turn on the Zoom setting, so Giffen sat with her daughter and repeated prompts from her teacher.
Things went better for Jaymie Torres, a special education teacher in Highline. Twenty-one of her 23 third-grade students at McMicken Heights Elementary showed up on the first day. The two who were absent logged on the next day. She and her colleagues leaned on a software called GoGuardian, which allows teachers to launch Zoom video calls on students’ screens.
There are a few things that districts can do to make online learning more smooth, Krull said. Districts should consolidate the number of platforms they use. Tech resources should be handled at the school level, which is Seattle’s structure, rather than through districts’ central offices so it is more tailored to students.
To avoid the type of slowdown Seattle experienced in its first week, districts should move to the cloud, Krull said. SPS routes students’ internet traffic through its own limited servers rather than a cloud-based service like Amazon Web Services, which can more readily accommodate lots of traffic. (Krull is the president of consulting firm Tech Reformers, a licensed reseller of AWS.) SPS chief financial officer, Jo Lynn Berge, said Wednesday the district received $200,000 from the state to quadruple its server bandwidth. The district spent $15,000.
Krull, who consults with various districts in Washington, said he thinks districts will remedy their tech issues soon.
“It’s still new for everybody.”