The optimism that school technology leaders expressed last month about sidestepping the “Y2K bug” was justified when the calendar rolled over to 2000 and school computers kept humming.
“We have no Y2K-related problems, all the schools are open, and everything’s as it is supposed to be,” Joseph J. Kirkman, the director of educational technology services at the Broward County, Fla., schools, summed up in an assessment that was echoed in districts across the nation.
Things went so smoothly, in fact—not only in schools but for computer systems of all kinds worldwide—that some commentators are questioning whether there was ever any real threat of serious problems. Perhaps schools, government agencies, and businesses didn’t need to spend billions of dollars on fixing the bug after all, they argue.
But school officials last week weren’t second-guessing their extensive preparations.
“Our technology guy said, ‘We’ll take that criticism.’ The alternative was far worse,” said David Smollar, the director of communications in the San Diego schools.
The 138,000-student district spent $10 million on a technology project that simultaneously addressed the bug and replaced the district’s mainframe-based information system with a client-server system. Like many large districts, San Diego set up a Y2K command center on Jan. 1, ran tests, and sent officials to every school to look for problems. Although the district had developed 39 contingency plans in case of breakdowns, “we literally had no Y2K problems—not a one,” Mr. Smollar said.
Many school technology officials noted that the enormous work they did to prepare for Y2K paid off in other ways as well. Among them: Administrators have now intensively studied their computer systems and how they relate to core school functions; districts have beefed up their computer staffs, at least temporarily; and school leaders outside of the technical staff have a better appreciation of technological problems.
“I’d say that every member of our school board, at one time or another, talked to me personally about Y2K preparations,” Mr. Kirkman said.
That’s a level of interest in technology-management issues that school boards have rarely mustered in the past, according to Keith Krueger, the executive director of the Consortium for School Networking, a Washington-based coalition of school districts and state and national groups. He hopes the increased attention will result in more funding and staffing for school information services.
“Schools have often underbudgeted the number of technology coordinators,” Mr. Krueger said. “There is a feeling that if [the network] goes down you can just wait. But you can’t do that if it’s really used for instruction and it is really integrated into school operations. ... We want school districts to get smarter about those sorts of things.”
James W. Parlett, the senior director of technology services in the San Antonio schools, said there was no question that taking on the bug had benefits. “One of the unexpected and happy outcomes associated with Y2K is that the sense of impending disaster over the last couple of years really focused many agencies in our district on the issue of technology,” he said. Since the “consciousness-raising experience” of Y2K, he added, he no longer has trouble persuading people to update their anti-virus software.
Mr. Parlett said two lasting benefits to come out of the effort in San Antonio were the development of a “general disaster” notification plan for technology and a set of contingency notifications for specific outages—"different things we’re going to do in case e-mail failed, if remote access dies, regional data service goes out,” he said. “Those things will remain in practice and in force.”
In addition, the Y2K bug spurred many districts to upgrade their equipment. As long as they were making their computers compliant, they figured, it was a good time to take care of some other pressing technology needs.
The Columbus, Ohio, schools, for example, spent more than $10.6 million in connection with Y2K preparations. But only about $2 million of that went specifically toward fixing the dating glitch in the computer code that threatened to shut systems down; the rest was to replace equipment and software that was obsolete. And in San Antonio, preparations included replacing the library circulation system in each of its 94 campuses and swapping about 4,000 desktop computers for new, leased ones.
The threat of a crisis “enabled us to spend money in ways that not only solved Y2K but also bootstrapped the rest of the district up to a new level of competency and quality,” Mr. Parlett said.
New Equipment Helped
Some school systems, such as Broward County, had been preparing for years. But even districts and educational service agencies that spent much less time reported no significant problems.
“We didn’t really prepare a whole lot,” said Carol Reid, the deputy director of an education service center in Huntsville, Texas, that processes information and runs distance-learning services for about 59 state school districts. The center’s main precaution was installing “minor updates” to the software that provide those functions, she said, adding that reports from individual districts had also been rosy.
“We didn’t feel like it would be a major problem,” Ms. Reid said. “We certainly checked out all the systems and made sure they were ready. Most of our technology, such as distance learning [equipment], was fairly new and came to us Y2K-compliant.”
Many districts, regardless of whether they deliberately invested in Y2K fixes, boosted their immunity by updating or replacing systems that were in place just a few years ago, when warnings started appearing in the media and professional technology circles.
Schools have spent an estimated $18.3 billion on technology in the past three years, according to Quality Education Data, a market-research firm in Denver. During that period, “Y2K compliance” has become a standard requirement in purchase contracts.
And many software vendors, seeking customer goodwill and hoping to avoid potential lawsuits, produced free Y2K updates and patches for their customers.
Whatever the reason, all 53 big-city districts that responded to a survey by the Council of the Great City Schools last week said they had no major problems with either centralized computer functions or desktop instructional computers at their schools.
Among those districts was Philadelphia, which was listed in a report by the U.S. General Accounting Office last fall as lagging seriously behind on Y2K preparations.
In another poll of 51 elementary and secondary districts from around the nation, all reported that their computer systems and infrastructure were operational, according to Jim Bradshaw, a spokesman at the U.S. Department of Education, which conducted the survey on Jan. 3, the first school day of 2000.
Surveys by the department last year had raised concerns that many districts would not be ready. But last week only two of the 51 districts mentioned specific problems related to Y2K—a malfunctioning water heater and incorrect dates on a few older personal computers. One of the Education Department’s fax machines presented the year as “19100,” Mr. Bradshaw added.
Of course, problems could still crop up later, and some, such as errant calculations, may be hard to detect. And many easily correctable problems, such as a wrong date on a personal computer or a faulty control device, may go unreported.
Technology officials will be watching next for date-related computer problems on Feb. 29, 2000—a date that some computers might not recognize because leap years didn’t occur in 1800 or 1900—and Dec. 31, which the leap year will make the 366th day of 2000. But such problems, if they occur, aren’t expected to shut computers down.
A version of this article appeared in the January 12, 2000 edition of Education Week as Side Effects of ‘Y2K Bug’ Prove Benign