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Google glitch, snowstorm bring virtual learning frustrations

FILE - A child runs across a sidewalk in front of New York's City Hall decorated with graffiti in favor of keeping open public schools, Thursday, Nov. 19, 2020. A Google services outage this week and potential impacts from a snowstorm in the Northeast highlight the fragile chain of connectivity that's powering widespread remote learning during the coronavirus pandemic. One Ohio school superintendent called Monday's Google outage the COVID version of a snow day." (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan, file)
FILE - A child runs across a sidewalk in front of New York's City Hall decorated with graffiti in favor of keeping open public schools, Thursday, Nov. 19, 2020. A Google services outage this week and potential impacts from a snowstorm in the Northeast highlight the fragile chain of connectivity that's powering widespread remote learning during the coronavirus pandemic. One Ohio school superintendent called Monday's Google outage the COVID version of a snow day." (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan, file) (Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

COLUMBUS, Ohio – It wasn't the weather that delayed school this week, at least not the first time.

Students in the Northeast might be giddily anticipating a storm that the National Weather Service says could drop a foot or more of snow across the region Wednesday and Thursday.

The glitch that came Monday, though, wasn't in the forecast.

“Google is down across the globe, which is the COVID version of a snow day,” Superintendent Joe Clark tweeted to followers from his Nordonia Hills City School District in northern Ohio. “Until it’s back up, Nordonia students, read some books, play outside, and help your parents around the house.”

All-virtual learning — in use by many U.S. schools this holiday season to help curb the spread of the coronavirus — has some districts talking about not needing snow days anymore, even after students return to school in person. If there's inclement weather, they argue, students can simply log on from home.

That is, if the technology holds.

Monday's short-lived snafu canceled classes in at least one district and disrupted the start of the day for more. And it underscored how easily the technology connecting kids to teachers can fail — be it on account of a bad bit of code or a nor'easter.

When a learning platform or internet connection fails during in-person classes, Nordonia teachers adjust accordingly, Clark said. But in distance learning mode, Clark said his instructors had no other options until the problem was cleared up and online classes resumed.

The brief Google glitch Monday morning was its largest in recent memory. It affected users in the U.S., Europe, India and other parts of the world and impeded access to Gmail accounts, Google Classroom and Google's videoconferencing and word-processing services, among other products.

The timing likely lessened the outage's impact, as it was resolved before many U.S. schools began their day. But around the eastern half of the country, some schools relying on those services in their remote learning routines had to pivot yet again, delaying virtual classes for an hour or two or scrambling for alternatives to communicate assignments.

“This is out of our control," South Carolina's Rock Hill Schools' account tweeted.

Wayne-Westland Community Schools in suburban Detroit canceled classes all day because some people still had spotty connections and there weren't assurances that students and teachers could all log on together, spokeswoman Jenny Johnson said.

Some parents praised the extra break for kids, while others objected to losing more learning time that won't be made up. District officials knew some families would be unhappy but felt the cancellation was in students' best interest, Johnson said.

In a tweet, Google attributed the outage to a problem with its authentication system, which is used for logins. That’s likely why the search function didn't seem to be affected. Google didn't return messages seeking comment.

Teacher Becky Richter said high school students in her first class that day had trouble accessing Google Classroom for about half an hour, as well as their Zoom video meeting, which uses Google logins.

Without a formal backup plan or printed lessons, they tried to make do. Another teacher set up an assignment through a different website, and they checked device monitoring software to confirm students were working on that until their videoconference was restored, she said.

Richter, a special education teacher in Lindenwold, New Jersey, said her students rely on consistency and routine, and she figured many would disconnect for the day because of the tech glitch. She was pleasantly surprised.

“I anticipated most of our students feeling like, ‘OK, cool, this is a free day. We don't have to do anything,'” she said. “But most of them came.”

The trouble echoed frustrations that emerged when Zoom briefly went down in August.

Such disruptions point to the delicate chain of technological and human resources that make remote instruction possible, said Justin Reich, an educational researcher and professor of comparative media studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

"Now, actually, schools are being asked to essentially maintain their supply chain out into children’s homes and figure out how you’re going to individually arrange for each family to have internet access ... to have someone in the local home environment with the expertise who can speak English or who can translate and are able to manage the kind of vagaries of software and software updates and those kinds of things,” Reich said.

He said those challenges are exacerbated by inequities in districts’ resources, including their ability to provide technology, such as computers and Wi-Fi hotspots for students, as well as their staffing and knowledge to manage that technology and troubleshoot when problems arise.

Tech outages are fairly common, even for big companies like Google, Facebook and Amazon. Usually it’s for technical reasons such as servers going down, software glitches or human error. Rarely, it could be due to malicious attacks, but that didn't appear to be the case with Google on Monday.

The disruption might prompt school officials to reconsider backup plans and alternative communication methods, but that might not be the most important thing for administrators to work on to help children through this year that has brought learning losses and other big challenges, Reich said.

Their focus might be framed by a broader question, Reich said: “Are these issues that we need to keep sort of muddling through in the next six months, or are they issues that are really going to shape the future of the American school system?"

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Associated Press reporter Barbara Ortutay in Oakland, California, contributed to this report.