‘Security Threat Attempt’ disables software at some schools in New York

An online platform used in some public schools in New York City has been out of service since last Saturday following a “security incident” that forced teachers to rely on more traditional ways of registering grades, tracking attendance and contacting students and parents.

School officials were unable to give a figure for how many schools had been affected by the power outage, but several teachers said in interviews that it complicated their work.

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

The problem comes as the city’s public school system – the largest in the United States, with about one million students – is already struggling through a third academic year, clouded by a series of disruptions caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

Accurate attendance figures are especially important as officials are considering whether to offer students an opportunity for distance learning. 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”, did not go to school.

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

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

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

Scott Virkler, Illuminate Education’s CEO, 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 ongoing.

Late Friday, the company said in an email to New York City users that it was in the process of restoring its systems, had begun testing aspects of them on Thursday and would continue to do so over 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 stating the number of schools that used Illuminate Education services, the Department of Education said the company had been paid $ 6 million in the most recent fiscal year.

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

A spokeswoman for the New York City Special Commissioner of Investigation, an independent agency overseeing the city’s schools, said the office had not been contacted about the matter.

Schedule, also known as IO Classroom, can be used with other online tools that teachers rely on, including Google Classroom, in ways that make it easier to submit assignments and track grades and attendance. Teachers also use the platform to take notes on students who are having difficulty in class and who may need the intervention of tutors.

The timing of the interruption has been a particular problem for many teachers, with the end of the first semester fast approaching and the final grades having to be paid. This is also a period where teachers typically review their grade books as well as students’ progress in class.

Students who have jobs they need to find are now struggling to determine what their outstanding assignments are, said Robyn Katz, who teaches world history to ninth graders at the High School of Public Service in Brooklyn.

“This is throwing such a wrench into things at such a horrible time,” Ms. Katz. “It just makes everything so much harder for the kids, for the adults, for the parents, for everyone.”

Students at Leon M. Goldstein High School of the Sciences in Brooklyn are among those who are becoming anxious, said America Billy, an English teacher in 11th and 12th grade.

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

Billy decided to spend $ 90 in discretionary funds earmarked for classroom items to purchase another type of software, Jupiter Ed, as a result of the Skedula disruption.

Creating a new grade book has been “time consuming,” she said, and now the money is not available for important things like books. She said she was also concerned that once the platform worked again, the characters it shows might not be accurate.

Sarah Casasnovas, spokeswoman for the education department, said teachers could still record attendance and final grades in the Automate the Schools and STARS Classroom, two systems that “run smoothly and were not affected by this incident.”

Mr. Copeland said he had used the Skedula platform to help with the transition back to personal learning at the School of the Future and to help track down virus outbreaks. He said the software had allowed him to identify students who typically wear masks in class, via images in the Schedule. He said he had also relied on the platform to make table cards.

“When I get my weekly or daily call that a Covid positive is in my class and that they need to start tracking contact,” he said, “I can pull up that seating schedule, the latest version of it, and forward to my administrator. “

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