It’s no news that there have been problems with FCPS’s online platforms. Several incidences of classes being hijacked by racist and homophobic language, as well as website failures, have left thousands of students, parents, and teachers in Fairfax County feeling frustrated with the current situation. Now it’s time to evaluate how to move forward.

After Gov. Ralph Northam ordered schools to close on March 13, FCPS teachers began planning ways to best help their students through an online platform. However, Fairfax County’s version of Blackboard, which was being used by most schools in the county, was outdated. During a virtual school board meeting, officials admitted that the school system had failed to make seven updates over the past year. 

The school system, which serves 189,000 students, has not been able to accommodate a working, fast-paced online platform for its students. According to the Washington Post, FCPS schools waited four weeks before launching virtual school, a delayed response compared to other school districts.

Unfortunately, “Fairfax went into this situation running a very old version of our product,” Blackboard Chief Product Officer Tim Tomlinson said in the Washington Post. “They’re just not getting the benefit of our best and most current work.”

On April 22, after several problems in the county’s distance learning efforts, IT Assistant Superintendent Maribeth Luftglass stepped down after 21 years.

Now it’s time for new ideas. Andy Rotherham, co-founder and partner at Bellwether Education partners, a national nonprofit organization working to support educational innovation and improve outcomes for underserved students, says that FCPS first needs to figure out what’s working and learn from it. This includes doing fast feedback and looking at student engagement.

A second important aspect, says Rotherham, is that even in Fairfax, school districts can’t assume universal access to devices “and even Internet” of their students. The best thing he’s seeing right now around the country, he says, are districts using things like phones or television to connect with their students.

“What we’re seeing with districts we work with around the country is that what sort of separates people is not the degree of technology, or the savvy or any amount of money,” he says. “It’s just how much they are willing to innovate and do whatever it takes to reach kids and be urgent and creative about that.”

The third thing that school districts should be focusing on is long-term planning. He says that many people assume the pandemic will end soon, and school will resume as usual. But in fact, he says, “it’s entirely possible the next year could be really bumpy,” so school districts should be focusing on long-term planning.

Rotherham does believe that online education can be beneficial for school-age children. “There are some really good programs that are in wide use right now in that demographic. But they weren’t built in two weeks.” He explains that the problem in Fairfax “is how rapid this pivot has been. You can’t do this on the fly.”

Not only has this pandemic been difficult for parents trying to balance their careers with having their children at home, but it’s also brought to light inequities that exist within school systems, such as access to technology.

Although it might be positive that the pandemic has raised people’s awareness to inequities such as these, Rotherham doesn’t think that is enough. “I don’t really know if this is a time for silver linings. This is a time for urgency. To make sure kids are getting what they need during a very challenging time.”

His most important advice for school systems right now is to be pragmatic and to prepare for extended periods of disruptions. “The places that are doing the best are not necessarily the wealthiest or the most resourced, they’re just the folks that are having the most urgency,” he says. “Fairfax County is one of the most resourced and they’re struggling, so that should tell people there’s other dynamics here.”

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