Schools at Y2K risk in new year

An Education Department survey released Wednesday revealed that thousands of schools nationwide may not open on time next year unless significant progress is made in fixing computer systems and developing contingency plans for the Year 2000 problem.

According to the survey, completed last month, 96 percent of all elementary and secondary school districts, and 97 percent of post-secondary institutions, reported they would be Year 2000-compliant. However, computer systems at more than 1000 schools and 200 universities nationwide will not be ready for the date rollover, said Mike Smith, acting deputy secretary of education.

Smith implored educators at every level to use independent contractors to fix remaining systems and complete contingency plans. "[Schools] only have three months left; a lot of things can go wrong...there's a lot of uncertainty," Smith said. "In the Department of Education, for each mission-critical system we thought was ready, [independent contractors] found problems."

However, schools may receive a reprieve from a Year 2000 catastrophe because Jan. 1 falls on a Saturday, and most schools do not plan on re-opening until at least Jan. 3, Smith said. "Those three days can save us from a lot of grief," Smith said. "That's why we're encouraging people to work up and through the first of the year."

John Koskinen, chairman of the President's Council on Year 2000 Conversion, echoed Smith's call for continued remediation and testing and said the movement on the education front must come from the local level. "At the national [federal] level, we can support and urge movement, but this is a local issue," Koskinen said. "Focusing on remaining Y2K risks, if I had to pick two or three sectors I was concerned about, this would be one."

The decentralized, locally controlled nature of the education sector and the sheer number of schools nationwide are two of the main factors contributing to education's Year 2000 woes, Koskinen said. "It took a long time for local educators to understand how much they rely on IT and how much at risk they are," he said.

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