Windsor

First day of secondary school marred by confusion, technical difficulties and students sharing obscene content

The first day of school for many secondary students in Windsor-Essex was riddled with confusion as many spent the day trying to figure out their schedules — and whether they should be at school or at home.

Public board's online tool for communicating with students and parents had been down

Fourteen-year-old Gracie Hedge, right, sitting next to her mother Michelle, says she waited four hours for an online class that never took place. (Laura McQuillan/CBC)

The first day of school for many secondary students in Windsor-Essex was riddled with confusion as many spent the day trying to figure out their schedules — and whether they should be at school or at home.

From Thursday until about 10:30 p.m. Monday night, the Greater Essex County District School Board's online tool for communicating with students and their parents, Edsby, had been down.

As a result, some students woke up Monday morning unsure of whether they were meant to be getting on the school bus or when their virtual classes were supposed to begin.

"My first class was supposed to start at 8:10 in the morning but we didn't get a message to go online until 9:10, so it was an hour later than expected," said 14-year-old Gracie Hedge, a student at Kingsville District High School, adding her teacher never appeared online.

It's awful. I don't even have the words to express how disgusted I am with how they've handled this entire situation,- Sabrina Andersen, parent

"We didn't end up having that class, so I waited four hours and did nothing."

Her mother wasn't too happy about the situation.

"If my child did what [the school board] did, they would've failed the assignment. As far as I'm concerned, somebody failed and somebody needs to be held accountable for this. It's not okay," said Gracie's mother, Michelle Hedge.

Allison Still says she wanted her son to enrol in school through online learning after her dad recently died of COVID-19. (Laura McQuillan/CBC)

While Edsby was down, the school board advised students to check their email inboxes for updates on what's happening throughout the day. School board officials say the error was attributed to issues transferring data from an older platform.

GECDSB public relations officer Scott Scantlebury said the service came online at about 10:30 p.m. Monday night. 

In another instance, a Leamington mother said she was left "angry" and "confused" after learning virtual learning wasn't available for her son's program even though they had been able to opt for it last week.

Allison Still's son, Jacob, is a Grade 11 student doing the International Baccalaureate program through Leamington District Secondary School.

"Our primary focus was safety. We're not comfortable returning him back to a school environment yet — and I don't think I have great faith in how this autumn is going to unfold," she said.

I know parents and students are anxious. They're upset, they're angry and we certainly understand that. We don't want to involve ourselves in making excuses at any point,- Scott Scantlebury,  GECDSB public relations officer

Still said her father's recent death due to COVID-19 was the biggest motivator for keeping her son home and they had previously filled out multiple surveys from the school indicating she wouldn't be bringing her son back to in-person classes

"We started to get information such as, 'Your teacher will be contacting you in the near future. Expect an email to your school-provided email.' Nothing came," she said.

Scott Scantlebury of the English public school board in Windsor-Essex says Edsby has been inaccessible because of a data transfer error. (Laura McQuillan/CBC)

But Monday afternoon — after her son's first virtual class of the day was expected to happen, Still learned virtual learning isn't actually available for her son's program after all, she said.

"This is the first time I've heard of the 'virtual school board.' I would have thought that a week or so ago, after we'd confirmed for the second time that Jacob was going to work from home, that perhaps someone would reach out to us," said Still.

"Where were they? We needed to hear from them and we could have had information come through in a more timely manner."

Pornographic material shared by student on digital platform

A discussion board within the SchoolTalk platform remained accessible to students Sunday night, as some at Riverside Secondary School posted objectionable content.

One student shared a link to hundreds of pornographic photos and videos. Others posted a racist meme and drug-related content.

But while students were able to post, teachers who would normally be able to moderate the page were still locked out.

Sabrina Andersen submitted this screenshot to CBC News after her 16-year-old daughter saw several inappropriate posts in a board-run discussion group that only included students. One of them posted a Google Drive folder with hundreds of pornographic images. (Submitted by Sabrina Andersen)

Sabrina Andersen, who said her 16-year-old daughter saw several of the inappropriate posts, said "it was pretty shocking" that the posts were even able to appear on a platform run by the school board.

"It's the reason we've put all these safety parameters into place on our home networks. They have them on school networks when they're physically in class, so why is this not being monitored on a board-run site?" said Anderson.

For Andersen, Edsby is the only method of communication her family usually has with her daughter's school. She said the blame should fall on the school board and Ministry of Education for allowing the digital platform to be rolled out "without proper forethought."

"It's awful. I don't even have the words to express how disgusted I am with how they've handled this entire situation," she said.

The incident was a result of "a quirk in the system" that let students access the discussion area of the platform, according to the school board.

It's since been locked down, with Riverside Secondary School expected to conduct disciplinary action against the students who posted the content.

"I know parents and students are anxious. They're upset, they're angry and we certainly understand that. We don't want to involve ourselves in making excuses at any point," said Scantlebury.

Officials say any student who posted inappropriate content in the online discussion group will face disciplinary action. (CBC News)

"There are circumstances we're trying to deal with as they occur, and a lot of people are putting in an awful lot of time to try and make this happen as smoothly as possible. We may have reached our threshold in asking for patience and understanding, but we continue to do so."

In a statement to CBC News, the Ministry of Education said it has provided school boards with access to "Ontario's Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) at no cost." However, school boards are free to choose other learning management systems such as Edsby to support remote, online and blended learning program delivery. 

"School boards are responsible for synchronous and asynchronous tool deployment. This includes monitoring student activity using any online tools provided."

 CORRECTION

 We initially reported that parent Michelle Hedge was quoted as saying "If my child did what [the school] did, they would've failed the assignment."  In fact, Hedge meant "the school board."
 Posted: September 15, 2020 | 11:00 a.m. ET

With files from Laura McQuillan

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