Bugging Out

April 01, 1999 3 min read

As the new millennium approaches, school officials rush to head off potential computer chaos.

Though some school districts have completed preparations for heading off the “Y2K” computer bug, most are likely to be busy well into next January. Even some districts that have taken a host of precautions have decided to close schools early in the New Year to test how their computer systems are working.

“All of us in the school business, we don’t want anything that would give us chaos,” says Richard Santillo, assistant superintendent of the North Hills, Pennsylvania, district, which is making January 3 a vacation day. “I’d hate to have 5,500 children running around with no heat and no light.”

“We keep being reminded of the big brownout in the 1980s, when the whole Eastern Sea board went out,” he adds.

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 may result in widespread problems on January 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; inoperable alarm and fire systems; and the loss of communications networks.

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.

Jefferson County, Kentucky, is one of 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,” says Jefferson County’s Y2K project director David Anderson, who started working on the problem near the end of 1996.

Urban districts budgeted a median amount of $2.1 million for Y2K compliance, according to the Great City Schools survey. But some districts expect the costs will be much higher. The 900-school Los Angeles district, for example, plans to spend $48.5 million. One-third of that sum is for buying hardware, and more than half is for fixing and replacing software; the rest will be used to correct various problems, including date-sensitive microchips embedded in sprinkler systems and other devices.

The U.S. Department of Education recently sent every school district in the country a guidebook that reviews the Y2K problem and recommends a process to analyze and take care of it. It also lists information resources.

Some technology experts say the department’s guide arrived too late to be of much help. “They should have had this out a year ago, at least,” says William Thomas, educational technology specialist at the Southern Regional Education Board in Atlanta.

But department officials contend that the guide should help districts identify gaps that may exist in their preparations. “It’s never too late to start, is our position,” says Robert 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.”

As they take care of their own Y2K concerns, some districts are drafting contingency plans for power outages or breakdowns of city emergency services. Jefferson County school officials, for example, are checking on food reserves that are kept at each school in case distribution systems break down. The New York City schools, meanwhile, 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.

--Andrew Trotter