‘Attempted security threat’ disables software in some New York schools

An online platform used in some New York public schools has been down since last Saturday after a ‘security incident’ forced teachers to rely on more traditional ways of recording grades, tracking attendance and to contact students and parents.

School officials were unable to provide a figure on how many schools were affected by the outage, but several teachers said in interviews that it made their jobs more difficult.

“There have been very brief blackouts from time to time in the past, so when it first happened it was kind of what I expected and wasn’t worried,” said Jeremy Copeland, a history teacher at the school of the future. Manhattan High School. “But now that it’s been almost a week, it’s really alarming.”

The issue comes as the city’s public school system – the largest in the United States, with around one million students – is already going through a third school year clouded by a variety of disruptions caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

Accurate attendance figures are particularly important as officials assess whether to offer students a distance learning option. Mayor Eric Adams, who had previously avoided such a move, said Thursday that “we have to be honest” that “a significant number of children, for whatever reason”, were not attending school.

The teacher-focused platform that went offline last Saturday, Skedula, is operated by Illuminate Education, a California-based company that has contracts with individual schools. According to a service outage notice on the platform, the service remained unusable on Friday. A statement said the disruption was caused by “an attempted security threat”.

The company also operates PupilPath, a peer service for students and parents that is also used by some New York schools. It too has been out of service since last Saturday.

The outage was reported earlier this week by The Daily News.

Scott Virkler, chief operating officer of Illuminate Education, said in a statement that “the company’s priority is to restore service as soon as possible and do everything in our power to help users.” He declined to comment on the nature of the security threat, saying an investigation was continuing.

In an email to users in New York on Friday evening, the company said it was in the process of restoring its systems, had begun testing some aspects of them on Thursday, and would continue to do so over the course of of the next few days.

According to the company’s website, more than 17 million students and 5,200 districts and schools across the country use its services. Without providing the number of schools that used Illuminate Education’s services, the Department of Education said the company received $6 million in the last fiscal year.

Under its contracts with the schools, Illuminate Education must report its findings to the Department of Education, as part of its agreement with the city. A department spokeswoman said in a statement that “at this time, there is no confirmation that information from our schools has been accessed or taken.”

A spokeswoman for the New York City Special Commissioner of Investigation, an independent agency charged with overseeing schools in the city, said the office has not been contacted about the matter.

Skedula, also known as IO Classroom, can be used alongside other online tools teachers rely on, including Google Classroom, to make it easy to post assignments and track grades and attendance . Teachers also use the platform to take notes on students who are struggling in class and who may need the intervention of guidance counsellors.

The timing of the blackout was a particular problem for many teachers, with the end of the first semester rapidly approaching and final grades due. This is also a time when teachers typically review their notebooks as well as student progress in class.

Students with work to catch up on now have a hard time figuring out what their outstanding assignments are, said Robyn Katz, who teaches world history to ninth-graders at the High School for Public Service in Brooklyn.

“It throws such a wrench in things at such a terrible time,” Ms. Katz said. “It makes everything so much harder for the kids, for the adults, for the parents, for everyone.”

Students at Leon M. Goldstein Science High School in Brooklyn are among those increasingly anxious, said America Billy, an 11th and 12th grade English teacher.

“I’m afraid to add another level of distraction right now,” she said.

Mrs. Billy decided to use $90 of discretionary school supply funds to purchase another type of software, Jupiter Ed, following the Skedula outage.

Creating a new notebook took “time”, she said, and now the money is not available for essential items like books. She said she’s also concerned that once the platform is up and running again, the ratings it displays won’t be accurate.

Sarah Casasnovas, the Education Department spokeswoman, said teachers can still record attendance and final grades in Automate the Schools and STARS Classroom, two systems that “work well and have not been impacted by this incident”.

Mr Copeland said he had used the Skedula platform to facilitate the transition to in-person learning at the School of the Future and to help track virus outbreaks. He said the software allowed him to identify students, who typically wear masks in class, via photos in Skedula. He said he also relied on the platform to create seating plans.

“When I get my weekly or daily call that a positive Covid is in my class and they need to start contact tracing,” he said, “I can bring up that seating plan, the latest version latest, and send it to my administrator.

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