‘Attempted Security Threat’ Disables Software at Some New York Schools

An online platform used in some New York City public schools has been out of service since last Saturday after a “security incident,” forcing teachers to rely on more traditional methods of scoring, tracking attendance, and contacting students and parents.

School officials were unable to provide a figure for how many schools were affected by the outage, but many teachers said in interviews that it complicates their work.

“There were very short breaks from time to time in the past, so when this first happened, it was kind of what I was expecting, and I wasn’t worried,” said Jeremy Copeland, a history teacher at the School of the Future. High School in Manhattan. “But now that it’s been nearly a week, it’s really worrying.”

The problem comes as the city’s public school system – the largest in the United States, with nearly a million students – is already struggling through a third school year that has been clouded by a variety of disruptions caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

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

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

The company also operates PupilPath, a peer service for students and parents also used by some New York City schools. He is also out of service since last Saturday.

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

“The company’s priority is to restore service as quickly as possible and do everything we can to help users,” Scott Verkler, chief operating officer of Illuminate Education, said in a statement. He declined to comment on the nature of the security threat, saying an investigation was underway.

Late Friday, in an email to New York City users, the company said it was in the process of restoring its systems, began testing aspects of it Thursday and will continue to do so over the next several 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 its most recent fiscal year.

Under the terms of its contracts with the schools, Illuminate Education must report its findings to the Department of Education, as part of its agreement with the city. “To date, there is no confirmation that any of our schools’ information has been accessed or taken,” a spokeswoman for the department said in a statement.

A spokeswoman for the New York City Special Commissioner for Investigations, the independent agency that oversees the city’s schools, said the office had not been contacted about the matter.

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

The timing of the break has been a particular problem for many teachers, with the end of the first semester quickly approaching and the final grades due. This is also a period when teachers usually review their grade books as well as students’ progress in class.

Robin Katz, who teaches world history to ninth graders at the Public Service High School in Brooklyn, said students who have work they need to make up are now struggling to define their own distinct assignments.

“This is throwing such a key into things at such a difficult time,” said Ms. Katz. “It makes everything more difficult for children, adults, parents, everyone.”

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

“I’m concerned about adding another level of distraction at this time,” she said.

Ms. Bailey decided to use $90 in discretionary money for classroom supplies to purchase a different type of software, Jupiter Ed, as a result of the Skedula outage.

She said creating a new grade book is “time-consuming,” and now there is no money for basic items like books. She said she was also concerned that once the platform was up and running again, the scores it showed might not be accurate.

Sarah Casasnovas, a spokeswoman for the Department of Education, said teachers can still record attendance and final grades in Automate the Schools and STARS Classroom, two systems that are “running smoothly and not affected by this incident.”

Mr Copeland said he has used the Skedula platform to help transition back into in-person learning at the School of the Future and to help track virus outbreaks. He said the program allowed him to get to know the students, who wear masks in class, via photos in Skedula. He said he also relied on the platform to create seating charts.

“When I get my weekly or daily call that there is a Covid in my class, and they need to start contact tracing,” he said, “I can pull this seating chart, the latest version of it, and forward it to my manager.”

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