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Published in Print: February 24, 1999, as 'Y2K' Computer Bug Still Creating a Buzz in Schools

'Y2K' Computer Bug Still Creating a Buzz in Schools

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While some school districts have completed their preparations for heading off the "Y2K" computer bug, most won't be making that claim for some time and are likely to be busy well into next January.

Even some districts that have taken all the precautions they can think of have decided it would be safer to close schools on Monday, Jan. 3, and see how the computer systems are working than to bring students back from their winter break into an uncertain situation.

"All of us in the school business, we don't want anything that would give us chaos," said Richard W. Santillo, the assistant superintendent of the North Hills, Pa., district, which decided last month to make next Jan. 3 a vacation day. "I'd hate to have 5,500 children running around with no heat and no light."

The Albuquerque, N.M., district has shifted its winter break to keep schools closed the entire week of Jan. 3-7.

The "Year 2000" glitch is caused by the formerly common practice among computer programmers of representing years by two digits instead of four--a practice that could result in widespread problems on Jan. 1, 2000. For school districts, the most serious potential problems include failures of automated systems, such as payroll systems; data errors introduced into administrative records of all kinds; inoperable alarm and fire systems; and the loss of communications networks.

While taking care of those concerns, districts are drafting contingency plans for power outages or breakdowns of city emergency services.

The Jefferson County, Ky., district, for example, is checking on food reserves that are kept at each school, in case distribution systems break down. The New York City schools are setting up a command center, with banks of telephones to gather information and coordinate a response with city agencies to a wide range of problems that might occur beginning Jan. 1.

"We keep being reminded of the big brownout in the 1980s, when the whole Eastern Seaboard went out," Mr. Santillo of North Hills said.

Different Approaches

A survey of 40 large urban districts last fall by the Council of the Great City Schools found that most had assessments of Y2K problems well under way but were less than halfway done with testing and implementing fixes.

The Jefferson County district, which includes Louisville, and the Miami-Dade County system in Florida are among a handful of large districts that say they have averted "mission critical failures" that might be caused by the computer glitch.

"We finished system testing and date-simulation testing at the end of July 1998," said Jefferson County's Y2K project director, David Anderson, who started working on the problem near the end of 1996.

Urban districts had budgeted a median amount of $2.1 million for Y2K compliance, according to the Great City Schools survey.

Some districts' costs have run much higher than that midpoint expenditure. The 900-school Los Angeles district, for example, expects to spend $48.5 million. One-third of the sum is for buying hardware, and more than half is for fixing and replacing software; the rest is going to correct date-sensitive microchips embedded in sprinkler systems and other devices, assure vendor compliance, and various other purposes.

Meanwhile, school officials in New York City, which has about 1,000 schools, budgeted only $6 million over the three years ending in June 2000 for Y2K compliance, according to Robert J. Parlato, the district's Year 2000 project manager.

He noted that Los Angeles is revamping its infrastructure as part of its compliance effort, while New York is sticking with its regular schedule for replacing computer systems.

"It would have cost us $100 million" to replace everything, Mr. Parlato said. "We felt most of our infrastructure was solid."

Guidance Available

Last week, the U.S. Department of Education sent every school district a guidebook that reviews, in plain language, the nature of the Y2K problem and the steps of assessment, awareness, planning, remediation, testing, and implementation that the department has recommended to districts throughout the past year. It also lists information resources that can help.

"They should have had this out a year ago, at least," William Thomas, the educational technology specialist at the Southern Regional Education Board in Atlanta, said.

But better late than never, educators say of the department's efforts--which, incidentally, is the same advice the department offers in case a district has barely started working on the Y2K problem.

"It's never too late to start, is our position," said Robert H. Davidson, director of the Education Department's Year 2000 Project. "There's well over 300 days left to get ready for the millennium. Ideally, school systems and anyone else with embedded technology should have started some time ago."

He said the guide should help districts identify any gaps that may exist in their preparations.

The most vulnerable school district might be one that has automated most of its administrative processes in the past but has neglected to keep those systems, and its technical expertise, up to date, said Mark Root, the technology manager for the Council of the Great City Schools and one of the developers of the guide.

The guide draws heavily on the Y2K expertise of school officials in the Miami-Dade County schools and in New York City, where the school system plans to finish testing of the last of its major computer systems next month, according to Mr. Parlato.

Vol. 18, Issue 24, Page 7

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