The West Ada School District’s rollout of its all-online learning model got off to a slow start Tuesday as an estimated 40,000 students powered up district-issued devices on the first day of class, overloading a system that still needed adjustments.
The district’s 50-employee IT department and four-person service desk at times struggled to field all the calls flooding in from parents as they complained that their children couldn’t connect to their online classes, causing some to miss hours on the first day and others to give up all together.
Those technical issues arose from a perfect storm of a quick pivot to all-online classes, an unprecedented volume of users logging on, delays in information technology equipment arriving due to COVID-19 disrupting supply chains and nearly every district laptop attempting to download the same Windows update at the same time, Chief Technology Officer Devan DeLashmutt said at the school board’s meeting later that day.
As a result, iPads had slow or no internet access, and laptops often couldn’t connect to Microsoft Teams as both routed connections through a district content filter that must be used to protect the district from lawsuits, he said.
Among the laundry list of issues that plagued an expedited shift to students learning on individual devices, a backlog of software updates were the chief reason for connectivity problems, DeLashmutt said. After IT prepared devices for students over the summer, many were turned off and needed updates they didn’t get before school started. The department has turned automatic updates off, but says roadblocks still lie ahead, even as IT staff “work day and night” after already changing “hundreds of things to make this go well.”
“I would like to say that tomorrow is a new day and everything is going to work perfectly, but I don’t think I can promise that,” DeLashmutt said.
The district will open in a hybrid model starting Monday. Central District Health on Tuesday shifted Ada County school districts from its “red” category of severe coronavirus spread down to its more moderate “yellow” designation. However, West Ada’s blended model will only send pre-kindergarten and kindergarten students back to school full-time, with first- through 12th grade split into two groups, attending class online or in-person on alternating days. As a result, close to half of students will take classes online on a given day along with students staying home sick but feeling well enough to work. Plus, if CDH shifts the school district back into “red,” West Ada would return to its all-online model under its board’s current framework.
Tuesday’s issues weren’t caused by a lack of infrastructure or by a lack of bandwidth, DeLashmutt said. But the district still needs to make “tough decisions” on whether it will change the way iPads connect to the internet, on how the district filter will work moving forward and other changes that DeLashmutt said he’s still cautious about making, worrying an impulse fix could actually make things worse.
“I do regret that some of our students did not have the first day of school that they should have had, but I think it’s naive to assume that one day of school is all it’s going to take to get remote learning off to a good start. It’s going to take a concerted amount of time for our teachers to put protocols in place and it’s going to take a few days for all of this to work out regardless of the issues we had today,” DeLashmutt said.
DeLashmutt says the district’s one-to-one rollout could have gone smoother, but the pandemic forced his department to have devices and its network ready months ahead of schedule, all before piloting the technology as it planned to.
One parent pointed to the tech problems to argue that the West Ada board should send all students back to classes every day, saying it would be “worth the risk.”
“It was a tough day. It was a disaster,” he told the board.
Trustees agreed with DeLashmutt that more frequent communication to parents could have made the situation better on day one.
“The first update went out to staff about two hours after high school started,” said trustee Rene Ozuna, who has two students in the district. “That communication then said that there was additional communication coming … and I didn’t get an additional communication until 5:05 this afternoon.”
School board members also criticized the communications department, commended and condoned IT’s response to the tech issues and lauded teachers’ adaptability during the transitional period.
IT and the school board also voiced concerns that the shift online is burdening teachers, forcing them to help students with tech support.
Moving forward, students may be able to use personal rather than district-issued devices, as many did on Tuesday, to take stress of the district’s tech infrastructure and tune into their classes. But that’s only part of the solution, DeLashmutt said.