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Lessons for Getting Schools Back Online After Hurricane Michael’s Destruction

By Sean Cavanagh — October 11, 2018 5 min read
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School districts staggered by the destructive wrath of Hurricane Michael are almost certain to count on technology at some point to help them on the path to recovery.

But how quickly tech can deliver on those needs is anyone’s guess.

The monstrous storm has knocked out power and internet connectivity across vast stretches of the Florida Panhandle, where it made landfall, and further inland as it churned northeast across Georgia.

In the wake of the storm, some districts, such as the Leon County school system in Tallahassee, Fla., have posted messages to parents and employees on their websites and through social media, alerting them to closures and promising further updates.

But given the destructive swath of the hurricane, the ability to get basic information, and in the longer-term, academic lessons, to students and families will likely hinge on access to electricity and reliable internet. Both of which will probably be unavailable for some time.

The best-prepared districts take steps well before hurricanes or other disasters hit, say those who advise school systems on preparedness. They assess risks, establish relationships with emergency managers from other agencies, and take steps to protect important data.

After a storm has hit, the work becomes much more difficult, said Frankie Jackson, the chief technology officer for the Cypress Fairbanks Independent School District in Texas.

Hurricane Harvey swept through Jackson’s district in 2017, and caused extensive damage to the surrounding community. But largely because the district made a series of upgrades to its networks and created several new, secure data centers, the district lost internet connectivity at just one of more than 100 schools after the storm.

“We took our mission-critical systems, our financial and business-management systems, and student information system, and moved all of that into [a new data] facility,” she said.

“It’s kind of like its own, private cloud. The whole district could blow down, and we would keep running.”

Damage Control

The Consortium for School Networking, which represents K-12 chief technology officers, has pointed to the Cypress-Fairbanks district as a model for disaster readiness.

While COSN urges districts to take up-front steps to prepare for disasters, it has also offered advice for getting damaged ed-tech systems up and running quickly, assuming they can be salvaged. (See COSN’s tips for school systems, below.)

8 Tips for Getting School Technology Back on Track After a Hurricane
Many school districts that have been upended by hurricanes and other disasters in recent years have sought to use technology to maintain the flow of information for teachers, students, and parents. The Consortium for School Networking, which represents the nation’s chief technology officers, offers advice on how districts can repair their tech systems after a major storm:

  • Inspect all tech equipment in the district’s data center for water damage before turning the power to hardware and other systems back on. Water damage can short out equipment, and turning on the power can damage hard drives and data.
  • Contact a data-recovery company right away to help recover data from hard drives.
  • Reach out to an IT recycling company to destroy compromised hard drives and to help with recovery.
  • Inspect equipment such as CAT-5 cables and punch blocks to see if water has entered. Corrosion can occur quickly, and replacement or repair may be needed.
  • Contact your hardware vendors, which may have teams with experience in disaster recovery.
  • Reach out to cloud service providers to see if they can help get your system running again. (And in the future, consider moving important infrastructure to the cloud).
  • Work with local emergency-response teams, to access their resources and expertise in disaster-recovery.
  • Contact the National Guard, which may be able to provide school officials with a staging area with temporary power and internet.

Some of the advice focuses on inspecting equipment and cables for water damage, and taking time-stamped photos of damage for insurance purposes.

Other tips for districts affected by Hurricane Michael include getting in touch with the district’s ed-tech vendors, who know their tools and platforms, for advice on repairs and workarounds.

Another step is to reach out with other public agencies and disaster-response teams in the community, from local city or county governments to the National Guard, for resources and help.

Some of those entities may have personnel with the expertise a district needs. Other agencies may have staging areas with temporary power and internet access that can offer districts a tech lifeline.

“You should not be thinking about your school district operating separately,” said Keith Krueger, CoSN’s CEO. “You have to work with the local mayor, the command center.”

(Two Education Week resources explore how districts can fortify-tech systems against disasters up-front, and re-build those systems after the fact. See Ben Herold’s 2017 story, “How Houston Got Its Schools Back Online After the Hurricane,” and a webinar, “Responding to Hurricanes and Natural Disasters: Houston, Miami Tech Chiefs Share Tips.”)

Jackson said that districts in Florida and Georgia should also consider reaching out to nearby school systems that have not suffered the same level of damage to see if they can “piggyback” on their technology. For instance, a district with badly damaged tech infrastructure could ask a neighboring K-12 system if it can take its backup payroll data, load it, and process it so that school employees can get paid.

Districts should be asking themselves, “who can help me?” Jackson said. “What district is most like mine, running the same kind of software I’m running. Can they extend their resources to me?”

Virtual School Access

The lack of basic connectivity and power would limit students’ ability to access alternate educational options, such as the Florida Virtual School.

Many of the Orlando-based school’s students are almost certain to be without power and web access. About 1,000 students from Bay County, Fla., one of the areas that suffered the most damage from Hurricane Michael, were enrolled in the Florida Virtual School during the 2017-18 school year, according to the school’s records.

In addition, some of the virtual school’s instructors work in the areas ravaged by Hurricane Michael, so they won’t be able to communicate with students online.

“For families that have connectivity at home, we would be an avenue for them,” said Larry Banks, executive director of Florida services for the school. “No one’s reached out to us yet, but it’s still early on.”

Devastation in Mexico Beach, population 1,200, after Hurricane Michael made landfall in the Florida Panhandle. --Douglas R. Clifford/Tampa Bay Times via AP

See also:

A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.