Education News

Back-To-School Begins With Website Crash For Houston Students and Teachers

More than 200,000 HISD students were supposed to log on to their laptops and digital devices Tuesday morning for virtual back-to-school. But a few hours into the first day of online classes, the website for the state’s largest school district crashed.

Many teachers have set up Bitmoji classrooms for online learning, such as Alaina Haley who is teacher third grade math.

Updated 3:29 p.m. CT

The first day of school for the Houston Independent School District was marred by technology and access issues, as students, teachers and administrators struggled with a new reality of virtual learning amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

More than 200,000 HISD students were supposed to log on to their laptops and digital devices Tuesday morning for virtual back-to-school. But a few hours into the first day of online classes, the website for the state’s largest school district crashed. The site remained down as of 11:15 a.m, with dozens of parents posting complaints to the district’s Facebook page. Later in the day, the site was back up and running, but some parents reported they still could log on.

On social media, HISD directed parents and students to another link for the district’s online learning hub.

The state’s largest school district struggled with some technology challenges on the first day of class Tuesday.

The crash wasn’t the first challenge of the new school year.

Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan said at a press conference Tuesday morning that about 12,200 students still don’t have digital access — primarily elementary school children who need an iPad — even though HISD has already distributed tens of thousands of devices, almost 100,000 in total.

Some community members believe that puts an undue burden on children who primarily come from low-income homes.

“You know that they don’t have the resources, so it’s guaranteed they’re not going to have a laptop, they’re going to have to go back,” said Criselda Reyna, an HISD parent and teacher. “And these people don’t have an option.”

Reyna said it puts these children, largely from Black and Latino communities, at risk for getting COVID-19 and exposing their families to the disease.

Lathan acknowledged the digital inequities in the district and agreed she was concerned about students without easy access to online learning.

“Very worried and we will continue to be worried until we know we’re back face to face and we’ve been able to engage wtih all the students signed on the HISD roster,” Lathan told reporters.

The online learning platform Blackboard, which provides technology for 70 of the nation's 100 biggest districts and serves more than 20 million U.S. students from kindergarten through 12th grade, reported that websites were failing to load or were loading slowly, and users were unable to register on the first day of school.

Two other of Texas' largest districts — Dallas and Fort Worth — were hit with technical problems, as were school systems in places such as Idaho and Kansas. A ransomware attack forced schools in Hartford, Connecticut, to postpone Tuesday’s start of virtual and in-person classes.

Still, despite the technology challenges, many educators in Greater Houston were eager to reconnect with students and their families.

“We want them to feel that we are their lifeline,” said Diana Castillo, principal at Pilgrim Academy near Gulfton. “We know we can’t fix everything, but we want them to know that we’re here for them.”

Other districts in Greater Houston started a mix of virtual and in-person instruction this week, including Cy-Fair, Klein and Tomball ISDs.

Separately, some districts that had already started virtual instruction opened up brick-and-mortar classrooms Tuesday, such as the Katy and Brazosport school districts.

Lathan said that HISD is still trying to reach about 1,000 students who disengaged from school last spring. That’s down from 7,500 students at the end of last school year.

“The first day of school certainly looks different this year,” Lathan said. “Yet despite some remaining uncertainties and challenges, I remain optimistic and firmly believe with continued determination, resilience and flexibility, 2020-21 can be our best year yet.”

HISD plans to phase in in-person instruction Oct. 19, though Lathan said that date is subject to change given COVID-19 conditions.

Harris County Public Health still rates the spread of the coronavirus in the region at its most severe level – Level 1 or Red – and advises residents to stay home.

Additional reporting by The Associated Press

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Laura Isensee

Laura Isensee

Education Reporter

Laura Isensee covers education for Houston Public Media, including K-12 and higher education. Previously, she was a staff reporter at The Miami Herald and contributed to South Florida’s NPR affiliate. Her work has also appeared in The Dallas Morning News, Reuters and Clarín in Argentina. Laura has won awards for...

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