At 7:30 a.m. Tuesday, thousands of Olathe students sat at their computers, ready to start the first day of school and meet their new teachers via a Zoom video chat.
But within a few minutes, many realized they had been blocked from doing so.
“At first I thought that maybe the internet wasn’t working in our whole neighborhood, since everyone was trying to get online. But then we figured out that (the district system) must have crashed,” said Cassie Collar, who has a middle schooler and high schooler in the Olathe district.
District spokesman Cody Kennedy said 50,000 people were attempting to log in to the online portal StudentVue on the first day of school. But the system was designed to accommodate about 30,000 users. It soon crashed.
In an email to parents, district officials said there were more than 160,000 attempts made at logging into the system.
“We know this was a challenging morning and we apologize for the rocky start to the day with StudentVUE. We had tested this system without fail numerous times in the weeks leading up to today. We share your frustration,” officials said in the email.
Johnson County districts have been preparing for most students to start the school year online, as the community continues to report a surge in COVID-19 cases. All of Olathe’s students began classes on Tuesday. Middle and high school students started the year remotely. Elementary students are learning in a hybrid model, with a couple of days in the classroom and the rest of the week at home.
Blue Valley is doing the same when students return on Wednesday. Some Shawnee Mission students began online classes on Tuesday, and the rest start on Wednesday. Shawnee Mission is the only district in Johnson County requiring all students to learn remotely for the start of the year.
So Tuesday was the first test of the online learning systems the three largest districts in Johnson County have been forced to create in a matter of months.
Olathe dad Brian Connell said he was preparing for there to be hiccups.
“I was texting people last night, if you just don’t have any expectations, you won’t be mad. And we’ll all get through it,” said Connell, who has two high schoolers in the district.
His kids were among those who learned how to troubleshoot connectivity issues on their first day back to classes. He said his social media-savvy senior quickly started a group video chat with a few friends to figure out why they couldn’t log in to the student portal.
The online portal includes students’ calendars, schedules and links to Zoom classes. And the crash left many families scrambling. Many parents posted online about their students feeling frustrated and anxious, as they stared at buffering computer screens and missed parts of classes.
“The district should have known this was coming. They could have done this very differently. You can’t ask 30,000 people to go online at the same time,” Connell said.
Kennedy said the district increased its bandwidth and added more servers, knowing that the system would be strained as many students learn from home. The district also purchased around 1,500 Wi-Fi hotspot devices for students to check out if they lack reliable internet access.
By 10 a.m., officials said the district “had the majority of our remote students, approximately half of our 30,000+ student population successfully logged into the system, but that doesn’t excuse the challenges of the morning.”
Administrators and teachers were prepared for potential glitches on the first day, and they had backup plans. Parents told The Star that teachers and school officials found ways to work around the system and get students logged in to classes.
“I don’t think the technology debacle this morning was all that bad,” Connell said. “However, it could be a precursor. Sometimes you hear thunder before the storm. And if it doesn’t get better, it’s not going to be a pretty sight.
“Kids are already months behind since schools closed this spring. So teachers, God love them, they’re going to have to figure out how to get everyone caught up without an ideal situation.”
Olathe officials said, in an email, that they have “made several adjustments to the system to help alleviate issues going forward.”
Despite the early morning glitch, many students and teachers were able to connect and begin their unusual school year.
For Shawnee Mission, spokesman David Smith said classes got off to a smooth start on Tuesday. The district has worked to avoid issues that arose this spring, when several parents and teachers reported delays with the district’s virtual private network, or VPN.
Over the summer, the district also purchased hotspot devices for families who lack reliable internet access.
“We have not heard of any interruptions in online learning, but we have teams ready to support,” Smith said in an email. “We know that with many professionals working remotely these days and in the changing landscape of the workplace as a result of the pandemic — the ability to work through technical challenges is also a skill that students will likely need as they prepare for college and career.”
In Shawnee Mission, Smith said, teachers found ways to greet their classes online, as opposed to the typical first-day-of-class icebreakers. Some middle and high schools held virtual back-to-school assemblies. Students shared self-portraits with their teachers over video chats. And one teacher instructed students to build a fort with materials they had around the house.
Many parents had to accept that they wouldn’t experience their children’s typical first day of school.
“My daughter is a senior, so this isn’t her ideal last year of high school, to not be with friends today. There’s always that excitement on that first, last day,” Collar said. “So it’s sad. And it hasn’t even sunk in yet.”