Technology Officials Counting the Days Until Year 2000
A few hours after toasting the new year, hundreds of school technology officials across the country will report to work Jan. 1—reasonably confident that no "Y2K bug" disasters will await them.
"On New Year's Eve, I'll be with my wife; on New Year's Day, I'll be at work," said Philip Brody, the chief technology officer and assistant superintendent in the Clark County, Nev., schools. As many as 20 other staff members will be joining him, he said.
Like many other school technology administrators who have long been preparing for the turnover to the year 2000, Mr. Brody believes the ballyhooed computer crisis will be a minor affair—just a holiday lost, stemming from programmers' decisions in the 1970s and '80s to save some memory by shaving the "19" off the front of each year.
Their strategy worked fine until "20" was called for; in less than three weeks, many computer systems may fail or deliver wrong information unless corrections have been made.
School officials in Clark County, which includes Las Vegas, have worked on the problem for nearly three years, according to Mr. Brody, who has been in charge of the effort for the past year.
"At this point, we feel comfortable with where we are," he said last week. "Our major systems are all in good shape, the mainframe systems, the enterprise-wide systems are okay. We're doing last-minute contingency plans."
The best data on school preparations nationwide have come from surveys by the U.S. Department of Education. In the most recent one, released in October, all but 4 percent of districts reported that they expected their "mission critical" systems to be ready by Jan. 1. But the survey also found that more than one third of the districts were not fully prepared for Y2K.
Help From the Calendar
Until that first day dawns, and perhaps till the first month passes, no one can be sure what the consequences will be. Getting a quick read on breakdowns of critical systems, such as business operations, fire protection, security, and transportation, is the first order of the day, several officials said.
Administrators are aided by the fact that the New Year's holiday falls on a Saturday, giving them until Jan. 3 before children could return to classes. Between 5 percent and 10 percent of school districts around the country have scheduled their winter vacations to end Jan. 5 or later because of Y2K concerns, the Education Department estimates.
As in most districts, Clark County's 205,000 students will return to class on Monday, Jan. 3.
Two days earlier, Mr. Brody's Y2K team will be watching for e-mail messages sent by the principal or office manager at every one of the district's 230 school buildings.
"If they're able to write and send this e-mail, which takes 20 seconds, that means their file server's working, their router is working, at least one administrative computer is OK, and also, because it's part of the local area network at their school, it means the basic LAN is OK," he said.
Having good communications is essential, said James W. Parlett, the senior director for technology services in the San Antonio schools. Mr. Parlett will have a team of eight people monitoring the Texas district's wide-area network, Internet connections, and e-mail from Dec. 31 to Jan. 3.
"We've set up a communications systems to keep the superintendent and school board members informed," he added.
Also on call will be agencies that provide technical services to districts.
"We will probably have a meeting here of key staff members at 9 a.m. on the first," said Clifford J. Ehlinger, the executive director of learning support at the Grant Wood Education Agency in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, which provides computer services to 33 Iowa districts.
"We've tested everything and feel pretty prepared as we go into it," Mr. Ehlinger said. "Our local school systems will probably see some spotty problems with computer networks. We're kind of thinking about it as if we'll have a snowstorm."
Mr. Ehlinger doubted that broader breakdowns to the region's power and communications grids would occur. "On January 1, if there is no heat, we'd drain water in the building, prepare for going through some cold times, and make sure the mainframe is shut down appropriately," he said.
Districts have regarded their financial and payroll systems as "mission critical," but some are printing employee paychecks in advance, just in case financial systems break down.
"Payroll, obviously, has potential in causing widespread problems and hurting morale," said David Smollar, the director of public information in the San Diego school district.
He said the district's financial system had passed thorough testing. But as a contingency, the 26,000 December paychecks—traditionally given out the first workday in January—will be printed by mid-December, he said. January paychecks will also be prepared in advance.
Other final preparations include replacing the bus-refueling system, storing additional food in district warehouses, and creating menus that require no electricity or cooking.
"We've been on this pretty hot and heavy for the last three or four months," Mr. Smollar said. "Bottom line: We don't think we will have any major problems."
Vol. 19, Issue 16, Page 9Published in Print: December 15, 1999, as Technology Officials Counting the Days Until Year 2000