Micaela Ramirez, 13, a student at Coliseum College Prep Academy, receives a laptop at the school during a #OaklandUndivided Campaign on Aug. 17, 2020. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)
Avi Zellman was supposed to be teaching an advanced math class at Bret Harte Middle School this year; it would have been his 12th year teaching in the Oakland Unified School District. Instead, he has a new job: tech support guy. He’d been doing some IT work on top of his teaching duties for years, but now it’s all tech support, all the time.
He spends his days on the phone and on video chats helping staff, students and their families navigate the transition to distance learning.
“You have the computer in front of you?” he asked a 12-year-old student on the phone as they launch into a troubleshooting session. “All right, what we're gonna do is we're going to totally reset the computer.”
As online school rolls out in Oakland and across much of the country, kids are being forced to contend with the bane of every office worker’s existence: tech issues. And in Oakland, in some cases, it’s teachers like Zellman who’ve been tasked with doing IT.
Each of the district’s schools has a new role this year, distance learning lead, which oversees technology distribution and support. Some teachers, like Zellman, have been reassigned to these jobs full time, while other staff, including teachers, administrators, librarians and community schools managers, are being paid to take on the duties on top of other responsibilities, said OUSD Chief Systems and Services Officer Preston Thomas.
At the district level, OUSD plans to expand its technology team by four full-time equivalent positions, Thomas said.
Since mid-March, the district has fielded an additional 3,041 requests for tech support compared to the same period last year. At this point, district spokesman John Sasaki said, most of the issues families are raising involve the quality of internet connectivity.
For Zellman and other newly minted distance learning leads, the first challenge has been getting technology into students’ hands. Across Oakland Unified, of nearly 25,000 students surveyed, over 19,000 don’t have access to a computer without district help, Thomas said.
Since learning went online in the spring, OUSD has loaned out 23,000 Chromebooks and 5,000 Wi-Fi hotspots.
At Bret Harte, survey results show that half of the roughly 550 students don’t have the computer or internet access they need for distance learning without school resources. Some borrowed devices in the spring, and Zellman got loner devices out to most of the rest during the first week of school.
But as soon as students got the tech, another set of issues cropped up.
“Even when families get home with that Chromebook in hand or that hotspot in hand, they don't always know how to use it,” Zellman said.
And then, of course, things can go wrong. Seventh-grader Darriah Andrews has been borrowing a Chromebook from her school since the spring. On the phone with Zellman, she explained that it was working fine, then suddenly stopped recognizing her home Wi-Fi network.
“This internet thing, which is not our internet, keeps popping up and I was trying to delete off the screen, but it wouldn't come off,” she said.
“Well, I'm happy to help you,” Zellman said. “This is actually a problem that a lot of the school computers have been having. I actually have a way of fixing it, OK? We're going to put the computer into what's called developer mode.”
Darriah got connected to Zellman in the second week of school because her teachers noticed she hadn’t been able to connect to Zoom. She’d been trying to use her phone, but, “I lost my phone for a minute,” she said. “I’m not gonna lie.”
After she and Zellman got the Wi-Fi dilemma fixed, they moved on to enrolling the computer in the district’s network through Chrome Enterprise. This enables the district’s content filtering settings, which block kids from gaming sites and other web material deemed inappropriate, and automatically installs certain browser extensions and apps students need for school.
“I want you to hit control shift and the letter E, like elephant,” Zellman said.
Darriah was on it.
“All right, now, does it say enterprise enrollment?” he asked.
“So you're gonna type in a special email address,” Zellman continued.
Finally, Zellman walked Darriah through logging into her school email account, where her teachers have been sending emails she hasn’t been able to access. Here they hit a familiar snag.
“It’s saying the email and password you entered don't match,” Darriah said.
“This is going to sound silly, but I want you to make sure that you spelled your name correctly,” Zellman said.
He knew there had to be some mistake, he told her, because he tested the login on his end and it worked. “I'm going to spell it out for you. Ready?” he said. “So, S for student, and then underscore — that's where you have to hit shift and then the key that's next to the zero.”
Eventually they got things sorted out.
“It works!” she said. “Hurray!” Zellman responded, with the enthusiasm of a person who too often sees things work out less well.
Before hanging up with Darriah, he reminded her to email her teachers to let them know she’s set for class the following day.
The whole process took less than 15 minutes, but sometimes the problems aren’t so simple. If a phone call doesn’t cut it, Zellman uses Zoom or FaceTime, and in the most complicated cases, meets people in person.
“Families get frustrated very easily,” he said. “A lot of the conversations that I have, I'm playing the role of both support, but also doing a little bit of therapy, of ‘It’s OK. This is hard for everybody.’ ”
Since school started, Zellman estimated he’s helped 40 to 50 students and families. “This feels like all I do,” he said, although his duties also include supporting all Bret Harte’s teachers with their own tech woes.
More Related Coverage
In Darriah’s case, a couple days later, the Wi-Fi network issue came back. Darriah’s mother ended up having to switch it out for another borrowed school computer, which so far has been working. Three weeks into the semester, Darriah was finally ready to start school.
Darriah and about 225 other Bret Harte students are expected to get a brand new Chromebook — for keeps — through OUSD and the city of Oakland’s “Oakland Undivided” campaign, which raised $13 million to buy 25,000 computers and 15,000 hotspots for district and charter school students. To date, the district has handed out about 6,500 of those computers and 2,800 of the hotspots.
While Zellman expects the new devices will be free of some of the problems he sees with the current school loaners, many of which are more than 6 years old, he anticipates a new set of troubles will present themselves. Because these computers won’t be district property, they won’t be enrolled in the district network with its many automatic settings and updates. That’s going to mean more work for parents, and, Zellman suspects, a lot more questions for him.