SAISD students are testing a year or more below their grade level in math and reading.
Students in Texas are "essentially back at a level that we would have expected had COVID-19 never happened in the first place,” said Education Commissioner Mike Morath regarding the release of preliminary data from this year’s state standardized exams. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

This article has been updated.

Many students eager to start the new school year were greeted with error messages on Monday as they attempted to log on for their first virtual day of school.

Adri Lawson’s two daughters, who are fourth and seventh graders in Northside Independent School District, couldn’t get past the district’s portal login screen and ultimately gave up for the day.

“They have been so bored, and so ready to start school again, so they were very excited [for today],” Lawson said. “We hope tomorrow is better.”

Lawson’s daughters’ experience was familiar to many students in Bexar County’s largest school district who either had problems from the first virtual bell or intermittently throughout the school day.

“Today was not the first day of school we imagined. I’m sorry,” NISD Superintendent Brian Woods said in a statement emailed to students, parents, and staff members as he explained the “numerous” technical issues the school district was working to address.

However, NISD was not alone. North East ISD and IDEA Public Schools also faced technical outages that upended the schedule or halted learning for the day altogether.

For Kate Fernicola and her two daughters who attend NEISD schools, Monday was a continuation of technical trouble many throughout that district faced last week when its virtual learning began due to issues caused by third party vendors. Fernicola said her youngest daughter, Madelynn, a Roan Forest Elementary School third grader who typically loves school, has become frustrated because of technological problems, including not being able to speak with her new class on Zoom. 

A message from NEISD updates students and parents on technical issues.

“Maddie in particular is struggling to the point of tears with distance learning,” Fernicola said. “She is my perfectionist and when issues happen, it’s very difficult for her to not melt down. This is the first year that I’ve heard Madelynn say she doesn’t want to go to school.”

Officials at both NISD and NEISD said the problem had less to do with a lack of bandwidth or network issues than issues with the third-party vendors those districts are using to provide the platforms for distance learning.

NISD Director of Communications Barry Perez said the district, which serves about 100,000 students across the North and Far West sides of San Antonio and is the fourth-largest school district in the state, began experiencing technical difficulties around 6:45 a.m. Monday, specifically with the district portal. 

The portal was created through third-party vendor Identity Automation, a security and IT software company, Perez said. The portal allows users to access resources such as the login link for Schoology, the learning management system NISD began using this academic year. Perez said the system worked for students who were able to log into the NISD portal or the Schoology site directly. 

“There’s been speculation that the sheer volume [of log-ins] may have caused [the portal to crash],” Perez said. 

Woods said the district is working with Identity Automation to resolve the portal issues. A representative from Identity Automation did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Some NISD teachers used workaround products such as the videoconferencing software Zoom or Google Hangouts to instruct their students for the first day of classes, Perez said. However, Zoom also had technical issues Monday. 

Zoom apologized for nationwide outages via Twitter on Monday afternoon, with CEO and founder Eric Yuan stating he realized it’s Zoom’s responsibility to “keep meetings, classrooms, and events running” throughout the coronavirus pandemic.

“I’m personally very sorry [and] we will all do our best to prevent this from happening in the future,” Yuan said via his personal Twitter account.

Last week, NEISD had technical difficulties with Blackboard, another third-party learning management system. NEISD spokeswoman Aubrey Chancellor said the district experienced “intermittent issues for approximately 90 minutes” on Aug. 17, the district’s first day back to school.

“Blackboard stated they could not handle the volume of traffic coming into the system,” Chancellor told the San Antonio Report. “[Our district] website also serves as a bookmark for most of our public digital resources, including ClassLink. The ClassLink outage then caused a cascading issue with logging into Google Classroom, Zoom, and more.”

ClassLink is a log-in service that allows users to have instant online access to learning resources. NEISD oversees about 65,000 students in the North and East parts of San Antonio.

Monday’s troubles for NEISD were part of the nationwide crash of Zoom, with students realizing early on they couldn’t get into their virtual classrooms.

“Zoom experienced issues across the country today and NEISD was no exception,” Chancellor said. “We realized around 7:30 a.m. that Zoom was not functioning correctly. We were able to send notices to parents and let them know that zoom wasn’t working and to conduct their work like usual in Seesaw or Google classroom. Zoom straightened out their issues around 11:30 a.m.” 

IDEA Public Schools, a local charter school operator, has had issues with Microsoft Teams, another videoconferencing software platform, since resuming classes on Aug. 11, according to at least one elementary school teacher.

“It’s not equipped to hold this many people, so some of our students can’t log in most days, or if they are able to log in, it lags and freezes a lot,” the teacher said.

A spokeswoman from IDEA said their schools also had issues with third-party providers Monday but did not elaborate on the specific difficulties. The spokeswoman said more information will be released Tuesday.

Lindsey Carnett covers the environment, science and utilities for the San Antonio Report. A native San Antonian, she graduated from Texas A&M University in 2016 with a degree in telecommunication media...