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‘Hangry’ kids, IT nightmares, and Zoom bombings: Parents and students adjust to virtual classrooms

For some, the day was marked by technical difficulties, unwanted Zoom guests, and pangs of hunger.

The first day of school always comes with hiccups, but virtual school poses unique issues.
The first day of school always comes with hiccups, but virtual school poses unique issues.Kawee - stock.adobe.com

Parents across the state this week found themselves suddenly plagued by precisely the frustrations they had feared would wreak havoc on their homes-turned-classrooms, as the pandemic-inspired experiment with virtual learning began in earnest.

Hundreds of districts around Massachusetts were scheduled to begin school as of Wednesday, with virtually all of them relying on at least some online remote learning, state officials said. Most opted for a mix of at-home and in-school learning known as a hybrid model.

But going to school on a laptop came with a litany of difficulties on day one: Parents were dealing with hangry kids who weren’t allowed to eat while on screen, demystifying confusing class schedules, and managing the various passwords needed to unlock an online education.

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At one point Wednesday, while doing his first assignment of the new school year in Waltham, Colleen Bradley’s 8-year-old son accidentally used a permanent marker to write on the dry erase board that the family had purchased for in-home learning.

Later, deafening feedback came screeching out of his iPad. By the end of the day, Bradley, a freelance marketing consultant, had developed a mantra: “'It’s the first day. It’s the first day' — just saying over and over again — ‘it’s the first day.’ ”

First day confusion at school is nothing new, of course. But rather than missed buses and awkward encounters with new teachers, this year’s miscues played out with most students sitting at home, often under the watchful eyes of their parents.

Medford resident Holly Ford began her day by sending out a slew of messages to various school officials Wednesday,after her children — who are in sixth and seventh grade — couldn’t access their online classes because Zoom was blocked by the district-provided laptops.

“It took about 35 minutes, and seven e-mails, and two missed classes before we were able to get onto Zoom," Ford said. “Once we got that figured out, they were able to log into their classes perfectly, they sat there and they did their work."

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Technical glitches and disruptions like the one Ford and her children encountered seemed to be par for the course for other schools this week as well.

In Newton, where classes began remotely for most students Wednesday, some families had issues logging into accounts for Zoom and Google, said Julie McDonough, a district spokeswoman.

The district’s information technology department sent out an e-mail to families in the morning to help guide them with the log-in process and navigate online platforms. The message to families also thanked them for their patience with a “myriad of technology issues."

Brockton Public Schools had to come up with a highly detailed “workaround” solution Wednesday, after the school was “made aware of a technical issue which prevented students who are using older model BPS laptops from accessing their Zoom meetings," according to a post on the district’s Facebook page.

And in Randolph, it was a “high volume of device logon issues” that forced officials in the district to “perform a mass reset of student passwords” needed to get into their accounts.

Other parents and children were confronted by a different type of virtual headache, one that’s become all-too-familiar to anyone who has spent time in a virtual setting during the pandemic: “Zoom-bombers."

On Tuesday, a virtual class at Westwood High School had to be cut short after its chat room was apparently bombarded by swears, and an unknown user set their background image to a picture of a cat, and then Hitler, according to Patch.com. The district could not be reached Wednesday.

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Framingham resident Brendan Andersen said his eighth-grade daughter’s online class was also briefly interrupted by an unwanted guest, a situation he said scared the children.

“It was honestly kind of a [mess],” he said of the first day of virtual learning. “First period, she couldn’t log in because it appears there was some type of technical problem with Zoom, and then the second period she was able to get in that classroom — and then it got Zoom-bombed by an older gentleman who was swearing profusely.”

In Taunton, a live-streamed class at Galligan Elementary School was quickly shut down due to what Superintendent John Cabral described as “inappropriate conduct of a sexual nature” involving a student. The student faced “appropriate consequences,” Cabral said, and the school reached out to other students and families affected to offer support.

More common, of course, is the overall fatigue of it all, which for some seemed to settle in quickly.

Malden City Councilor Amanda Linehan said her entire household was “exhausted" after scraping through the first day online — even though she had taken part of the day off from work to help monitor her second-grader’s progress.

“I seriously don’t know how we’re going to do this every day,” Linehan said in a message. “My daughter needed a video break 45 [minutes] in and I felt like a pit crew throwing food [at] her in the two 15-minute breaks.”

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Another parent said her child “just keeps yelling, ‘I’m starving,’ ” but there were no snacks allowed in front of the Chromebook.

But for all of the blunders, technical difficulties, and unanticipated obstacles, some fortunate parents said that it wasn’t all that bad — at least for now.

Worcester resident Bill Galeckas and his wife, Kristen, were shocked by how seamlessly the day unfolded for their 8-year-old son, Cameron, on Tuesday.

Galeckas said teachers started reaching out a few weeks before classes began, and the district had passed out Chromebooks early, which helped to ease the pressure.

“We didn’t have real high hopes," said Galeckas, who works in IT. "We talked Monday about how we have to be zen about this, and start the bar low. But the fact that 90 percent of the day went fine, that was stunning to both of us.”

While Shaleen Title, a commissioner on the state’s Cannabis Control Commission, certainly encountered some hiccups — she and her first-grade son were “completely done and over it” within the first five hours of the school day — she, too, managed to find a bright spot.

“The only highlight is that first-graders on webcams are extremely cute,” Title said in a tweet. “It’s like those livestreams of baby chicks and puppies.”

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John Hilliard and Gal Tziperman Lotan of the Globe staff contributed to this report.


Steve Annear can be reached at steve.annear@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @steveannear.