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Head of Fairfax Schools IT Steps Down, Teachers React to Distance Learning Tech Issues

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The head of Fairfax County Public Schools' IT department has stepped down amid fallout over numerous technical problems that have disrupted distance learning for students during the coronavirus pandemic, the school system says.

Assistant Superintendent for the Department of Information and Technology Maribeth Luftglass has been under increased scrutiny for the technical difficulties.

Luftglass' resignation is effective immediately, according to a spokesperson for the school system. She has served as head of the IT department for 21 years.

Chief Operating Officer Marty Smith will take over the IT department in the interim, the spokesperson said.

FCPS paused face-to-face virtual distance learning after a week of technical snafus prevented many students from logging on without problems.

Teachers are not giving digital face-to-face instruction until further notice as schools move away from using the Blackboard Learn 24-7 software for face-to-face digital instruction, Superintendent Scott Brabrand said in a letter to parents Monday.

Kimberly Adams, president of the Fairfax Education Association, the union that represents teachers and staff, said that was a start.

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"How he felt that maybe there were shortcomings at the leadership level, that he was willing to work really hard to try to overcome," she said.

One teacher from the school system wants families to know they are feeling the stress too.

"They're frustrated with the school system and they're frustrated with the teachers. I wish everybody knew how much the teachers cared and that our first priority is your kids. They're our kids too," she said.

This teacher asked to remain anonymous because of her concerns with the failures. She said that some of the teachers expected these technical challenges because they'd experienced them in the past.

Scott Braband, the Fairfax County Public School Superintendent, responded to teachers' apprehensions.

"It is very possible that teachers raised concerns at the school or department level, but I also need to be transparent with you that there was no information I had prior to the debut on April 14 that Blackboard was a problem from a teacher perspective."

Dr. Brabrand says he accepts responsibility for the missteps, but feels confident face-to-face learning is now on the right track.

From kindergarten to high school, many of Fairfax County's 189,000 students faced technical issues when trying to log into virtual classrooms since distance learning was set to begin last Tuesday, the school district says.

To solve this, FCPS sent individual links for students to login with, but the administration says those links weren't secure and caused several issues for students and teachers.

One administrator is blaming IT staff, but IT staff says they followed the directions they were given.

"It very much felt like they were trying to cover up, and I think over the course of the rest of that meeting, we started to hear, no, in fact, that's the way it was set up to happen and it was the wrong way," Adams said.

Fairfax County Public Schools canceled classes at the end of last week and tried to implement technical updates over the week but told parents via email on Monday that the system still was overloaded.

"It's making me a home school mom,” said Holli Aspland, mother of two FCPS students. “There is a reason I send my kids to school. I never wanted to be a home school mom."

A week after online learning was supposed to launch, she said she still isn’t getting the guidance she needs. 

"I don't feel like our school is going above and beyond,” she said. “I don't even think they're doing the minimal. We just don't have anything for the kids to do."

Students at Fairfax County public schools are still experiencing issues with Blackboard, the county's online learning software, is strained by the surge in users. News4's Aimee Cho reports.

"This is frustrating and disappointing for everyone," Brabrand said.

Students and parents echoed the sentiment in interviews with News4.

"With the Blackboard problems that have been occurring, it’s kinda messing everything up," student Maddie Koenig said.

Her brother Dylan said it took him two tries to log in. Both say they’ve had fewer classes and shorter class periods and that they wish the school day had more of a structure.

Courtney Kujawski's daughter goes to kindergarten in Fairfax County and was disappointed when she couldn’t log in. But Kujawski said her other two kids were able to sign on.

"She was really so excited to see everyone," Kujawski said. "Kids are craving seeing their peers and doing something that isn’t just us assigning them work or telling them to do this and that."

Until schools provide an updated learning plan, teachers won't be giving digital "face-to-face" instruction, the school says. "Instead, our teachers will continue to provide other learning opportunities via a variety of platforms," Brabrand's letter said.

Teachers and schools are supposed to communicate with students about how online learning will continue. The school district says future distance learning could include Google Classroom, pre-recorded videos, learning packets, eBooks and instruction on channels 21, 25 and 99. Parents are encouraged to have their children complete any assignments available to them online.

Schools will eventually begin using alternative means for face-to-face instruction, including Blackboard Collaborate Ultra and other programs, the school district said. Virginia has already said schools will not reopen through the rest of the year to slow the spread of coronavirus.

Blackboard sent a statement to News4 Monday saying it has been working around the clock to fix the issues and that it "won't rest" until students have a "seamless experience."

The school district says it hired Hunton Andrews Kurth LLP, a law firm that specializes in information technology and cybersecurity, to investigate the issues. The school district also is launching an advisory council on technology.

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