School Climate & Safety

Officials Scramble to Salvage Storm-Damaged School Data

By Rhea R. Borja — September 13, 2005 4 min read
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School districts swamped by Hurricane Katrina struggled to get their employee and district data and information systems back up to speed last week in the wake of the catastrophe.

Hours before the hurricane ripped through the Gulf Coast late last month, New Orleans school officials backed up their network servers, hoping to safeguard the computerized personnel, payroll, and financial data of the 60,000-student district. But when levees protecting the city burst, the building housing the backed-up data was flooded up to the fourth floor.

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A few days after the hurricane, a team led by the district’s interim chief operating officer, Sajan George, entered the waterlogged building under military escort and retrieved the 178 data cartridges that held the district’s operating system. Mr. George said he then shipped the tapes to an IBM data-recovery center in New Jersey, where crews worked through the Labor Day weekend to get a copy of the school data system up and running.

As a result, school officials said they were planning to pay the district’s more than 6,000 employees by Sept. 15. The district as of last week was completing a contract with a national company with branches nationwide where employees can pick up their pay, Mr. George said in a telephone interview from Baton Rouge. He declined to identify the company.

Mr. George, a managing director of Alvarez & Marsal, the New York City-based crisis-management firm that took over the operations of New Orleans schools on July 11, had already been planning to overhaul the district’s inefficient and outdated information systems. He just didn’t realize it would happen so soon.

“In many ways, we’re starting with a clean slate,” Mr. George said from his temporary offices in the Louisiana Department of Education in Baton Rouge.

Off-Site Backups

One lesson to be learned from Hurricane Katrina is that school officials need to think ahead to keep their data safe, said Andy Rogers, a principal research analyst for the American Institutes for Research’s educational-statistics-services institute, based in Washington.

“Back up your data with as much immediacy as possible and get it away from your danger zone,” said Mr. Rogers, a former director of instructional technology for the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Mr. Rogers facilitated publications on safeguarding and standardizing school data processes for the National Center for Education Statistics that are available online at www.nces.ed.gov/forum.

In Los Angeles, Mr. Rogers said, his department backed up data every day for the 760,000-student district and sent it out of Southern California, which is prone to earthquakes.

Keith R. Krueger, the chief executive officer of the Consortium for School Networking, agreed with Mr. Rogers’ advice. The nonprofit consortium, based in Washington, promotes technology to improve classroom learning.

“Educators need to think through the whole range of issues on the use of technology,” Mr. Krueger said.

For example, many businesses keep or update their data on remote network servers, partly as a safeguard against natural disasters. Yet many school districts don’t follow that practice, he said.

The consortium’s Web site, www.cosn.org, has information on cyber and physical security for school district computer networks. Its security rubric and planning guide rates the security of district data systems in four categories: basic, developing, adequate, and advanced.

One indicator is environmental security. In a “basic” data system, network equipment may sit on a lower floor or in the basement, while an “advanced” system may be housed in a building’s upper floor or other safer location. Warning indicators in a more advanced system would also be installed to guard against other natural disasters.

Township High School District 211, a 12,800-student system in Palatine, Ill., is one district that houses its data off-site.

Illinois requires all governmental agencies to keep their data in its state archives. So every month, Steven M. East, District 211’s director of purchasing and facilities, backs up payroll, employee, and other important data onto a computer disk and sends it to the Illinois State Archives in Springfield, more than 200 miles away.

“It hasn’t been overkill, just prudent business practices,” Mr. East said.

New System Pays Off

The Jefferson Parish. La., public schools, just west of New Orleans, also had a data-security plan. While upgrading its information system two years ago, the 52,000-student district consolidated the data and housed the information on two computer-network servers, one on school grounds and another in a warehouse outside the district, said Jeff Nowakowski, the community liaison for the district.

“That gave us quicker recall to data we needed,” Mr. Nowakowski said from one of the three cubicles that make up the district’s interim headquarters at the Louisiana education department. The school system plans to reopen Oct. 3. (‘Normal’ a Long Way Off for Schools in Louisiana,”, Sept. 14, 2004)

School officials were able to grab both of the network servers, move them up the Mississippi River to higher ground in Baton Rouge, and reconfigure them.

As a result, Mr. Nowakowski said, “we were up and running within three days.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 14, 2005 edition of Education Week as Officials Scramble to Salvage Storm-Damaged School Data

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