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

An online platform used in some public schools in New York City has been out of service since last Saturday after a “security incident” forced teachers to rely on more traditional ways to capture grades, track attendance and contact with students and parents.

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

“There have been very brief interruptions from time to time in the past, so when this first happened, that was about what I expected, 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 almost a week, it’s really alarming.”

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

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

The teacher-focused platform that shut down last Saturday, Skedula, is operated by Illuminate Education, a California company that contracts with individual schools. According to a report of a service interruption 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 partner service for students and parents that is also used by some schools in New York City. This one has also been out of use 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 and said the investigation was still ongoing.

According to the company’s website, more than 17 million students and 5,200 districts and schools across the country use its services.

Under the terms of its contracts with 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 “there is no confirmation so far that information from our schools has been accessed or taken.”

A spokeswoman for the New York City Special Commissioner of Investigation, an 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 teachers rely on, including Google Classroom, in ways that make it easier to post assignments and track grades and attendance. Teachers also use the platform to take notes about students who are struggling in class and who may need the intervention of academic counselors.

The timing of the outage in particular was a problem for many teachers, as the end of the first semester is fast approaching and final grades have to be met. This is also a time when teachers typically review their gradebooks, as well as students’ progress in class.

Students who have work to catch up on are now struggling to determine what their outstanding assignments are, said Robyn Katz, who teaches world history to ninth graders at the High School for Public Service in Brooklyn.

“This is such a wrench in things at such an awful 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 High School for the Sciences in Brooklyn are among those who get anxious, said America Billy, an 11th and 12th grade English teacher.

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

Ms. Billy decided to use $90 in discretionary funds earmarked for classroom supplies to purchase another type of software, Jupiter Ed, as a result of the Skedula outage.

Creating a new gradebook has been “time-consuming,” she said, and now there’s no money left for essential items like books. She said she was also concerned that once the platform is up and running again, the numbers it shows may not be accurate.

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

Mr Copeland said he had used the Skedula platform to aid in the transition back to face-to-face learning at the School of the Future and to help track virus outbreaks. He said the software had enabled him to identify students through photos in Skedula, who typically wear masks in class. He said he also relied on the platform to create seating schedules.

“If I get my weekly or daily call that there is a Covid positive in my class and they need to start tracing contacts,” he said, “I can pull out that seat map, the most recent version of it, and forward it to to my administrator.”

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