Bug Could Have Far-Reaching Effects

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For decades, programmers used two-digit fields to represent the year in computer instructions. Computers just assumed the year began with "19."

In doing so, programmers conserved computer memory, which once was very costly. Unfortunately, that practice remained standard, even as costs dropped.

Only in the late 1980s did information specialists awake to the fact that their systems would understand 2000 as "00," causing miscalculations and other errors in software programs that use dates as key records.

Fixing any single instance of the problem, by adding space for two more digits to a line of computer code, is not difficult. Fixing everything is like removing all the rust from an old car.

The Los Angeles school district, for example, has about 24.4 million lines of code.

Wide-Ranging Problems

Districts that have not corrected what programmers call the "Y2K" problem by 2000 will likely experience potentially serious malfunctions in their fundamental operations--in systems that handle student records, payroll and employee benefits, purchasing, class scheduling, and bus routing.

Already, some districts have found errors in systems that track the expiration dates of teacher certificates and bus drivers' licenses and that send letters to inform preschoolers about registering for kindergarten.

Even more worrisome, some systems will not fail but instead report bad information, which might go undetected.

Also affected are computer chips embedded in many electronic locks, card-entry systems, alarms, environmental controls, elevators, refrigerators, food-preparation equipment, and sprinkler systems.

Those devices may fail if they are not attended to individually.

The potential safety and legal risks give that problem added urgency, said John P. Bailey, the director of educational technology for the Pennsylvania Department of Education.

"What does that mean for schools legally if their fire alarm system doesn't work?" he said.

In addition, personal computers with early versions of the Pentium processor or earlier processors will also need individual attention--a time-consuming task because of the numbers of machines in schools and administration buildings.

In the case of some equipment, such as fax machines, having "00" dates might not matter.

Noncompliant PCs may still run educational software, although systems that track student progress are likely to fail if they are not corrected.

Because of the diverse vintages and arrangements of technological systems in different school districts, each district should conduct its own assessment and create a remediation plan that includes extensive testing, experts advise.

Districts should also guard against disruptions in the operations of their vendors and consortium partners.

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