NYC schools could stagger class start times to avoid repeat of remote learning fiasco

New York City public schools are exploring the possibility of staggering class start times to avoid a repeat of the widespread technical problems students experienced on a remote learning day during a snowstorm last month, local education officials said Wednesday.

“If we have a remote learning day tomorrow, we should be working to stagger start times, which we agree is not ideal from a student and staff perspective,” Emma Vadehra, the city Department of Education’s chief operating officer, testified at a City Council hearing on the Feb. 13 fiasco.

Many students encountered error messages when trying to log into remote learning that morning, after Mayor Eric Adams’ administration ordered schools closed due to the weather. Families said their children struggled with using school-issued technology, including Google Classroom, Chromebooks and Zoom, well into the school day.

The education department later apologized for the issues, which it said were caused by the surge in login attempts. They said the system’s user authentication services — provided by contractor IBM — could not handle the sheer volume of requests.

“The root cause of the issue was [that] the number of New York City public schools users logging in prior to 8 a.m. to start the remote learning day exceeded the capacity of the system to handle that peak load,” Scott Strickland, a deputy chief information officer at the department, told councilmembers on Wednesday.

Strickland also said the system would undergo automated performance tests to suss out any potential glitches before they happen.

But officials with IBM argued that the company was not at fault for the problems that arose last month. They said IBM has long been upgrading its system for the city’s public schools so that it can handle user traffic above the levels specified in its contract.

“On Feb. 13, the Department of Education had a closet door when it needed a barn door,” said Vanessa Hunt, an IBM senior state executive for New York. “At over 2,000 transactions per second, everyone tried to rush through that door at once. Balancing the traffic over time would have resulted in a better outcome.”

Councilmember Shekar Krishnan of Queens suggested that the education department was seeking to absolve itself of responsibility in the incident and was “passing the buck” to IBM.

“If you have an elevator, and the elevator can only hold 1,000 pounds, and you put 7,000 pounds in the elevator, and the elevator gets stuck, is it fair to blame the elevator company in that situation?” he said.

Remote learning took off in the city after the COVID-19 pandemic forced schools to shutter temporarily to mitigate the virus’s spread. After schools returned to in-person learning during the 2021-2022 school year, the state enacted a “snow day pilot” program where schools could shift to remote learning in certain weather. The city’s schools have pivoted to remote learning on two occasions: during a bout of poor air quality last summer and the Feb. 13 snowstorm.

At the Council hearing, education officials said they’re looking to improve the implementation of remote learning days rather than ditch them altogether.

Still, Public Advocate Jumaane Williams said he and many other New Yorkers were concerned that the education department went months without a permanent chief information officer to oversee school technology, including during the recent remote learning day.

Intekhab Shakil, the department’s new chief information officer as of late February, promised fixes.

“While we understand that technology glitches are an unfortunate reality, we take this incident very seriously and are dedicated to ongoing enhancements to our systems,” he said.

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