NEW YORK — Teachers and parents got a brief glimpse of a new kind of pandemic-era nightmare Monday when Zoom — the video-conferencing service that powers everything from distance learning to business meetings to casual, socially distant get-togethers — abruptly went dead.
For roughly 2½ hours Monday morning, many users were unable to load the Zoom website; others could neither host nor join scheduled meetings. Zoom fixed the problem by 11:30 a.m., the company reported on its status page.
The timing was less than ideal, since many schools across the United States were just starting online instruction after a summer surge in the coronavirus pandemic scotched many plans to reopen classes with students present in the flesh.
“Today was horrible,’’ said Jacqueline Donovan, a professor at Broward College in Broward County, Fla. Her 12-year-old daughter Michaela and 14-year-old son Jayden were trying to log onto Zoom classes, but unable to.
“They were both panic stricken and anxious,’’ she said. Meanwhile, Donovan herself was trying to hold her first class, an introduction to business, and getting frantic e-mails from her own students. Her class was eventually canceled.
“You become so accustomed to the software working, then (when it doesn’t) you realize how dependent you are on the software and it’s a little scary,’’ she said.
Zoom did not disclose the cause of the problem, which appeared to hit both coasts of the United States especially hard. Its shares fell less than 3 percent during regular trading.
Grade schools, high schools, and universities are relying on Zoom and competing technologies like Microsoft Teams to teach remotely and reduce the chance of infection during the pandemic. Schools began opening over the past month with a wide array of in-person, hybrid, and online schooling plans. In 2019, during a normal school year, about 80 percent of elementary and secondary schools had opened by the last week of August, according to Pew Research.
Internet services from Facebook to Amazon go down all the time, but few have become so crucial to companies, government, and schools that their absence can spur brief moments of panic. These days, when Zoom goes down, it’s more like a power outage or phones going dead, making it a modern sort of utility for a nation still enduring the ravages of COVID-19.
Zoom and similar services ‘‘have been elevated to what we call ‘mission critical applications,’’’ said technology analyst Tim Bajarin, president of consultancy Creative Strategies. “They’re no longer nice to have, they’re now must have.’’
While Zoom has built up server farms and spent millions investing in its software, it was still a relatively nascent company when the coronavirus hit in March, Bajarin said. “The bottom line is, software glitches happen.’’
Bryan Grant in Crystal Lake, Ill., had just corralled his 3 1/2-year old twins and 5-year-old son in front of computers to start their first days at preschool and kindergarten. Then came an urgent message from their school, 30 minutes ahead of classes, to use Google instead.
He rushed to install the software and sign in, but the classes descended into semichaos as the children in the kindergarten class unmuted themselves, something they can’t do on Zoom. His 5-year-old was nearly in tears as he tried to follow the rules and raise his hand for a question, but was talked over by other kids who unmuted themselves.
Grant, who also uses Zoom for his job as a financial aid specialist, thinks the country may be almost too dependent on one product.
“It actually does really show you how much we are all depending on Zoom,’’ he said. “It should be considered essential. Every effort needs to be made to make sure this is available for everyone.’’