In the first week of school after the winter recess, Bronx high school teacher Jennifer Gorman was so exhausted by the logistical headaches of staff and student absences that she would collapse on the couch when she got home.
This Monday, she discovered another setback: The digital platforms her school relies on for tracking students’ grades, missing assignments, and to log notes about their mental health were completely shut down.
The systems have not flickered back to life all week.
“Murphy’s Law is in full effect,” said Gorman, a teacher at Mott Hall V. “We got one crisis after another.”
Public schools across New York City depend on the tools, known as Skedula and PupilPath, for a dizzying array of tasks. Many schools rely on Skedula as an attendance tracker and as their gradebook, tallying course averages and missing assignments.
Through PupilPath, which is connected to Skedula, schools can easily communicate that information to parents and students or send text messages. Other schools use it to document behavioral incidents and observations about students’ mental health so that guidance counselors can follow up.
Some schools use the attendance features to conduct contact tracing and determine which students should be given at-home rapid tests. And students depend on the information to know whether they’re on pace to pass classes and earn enough credits to graduate this year, which is especially crucial as the marking period is ending on many campuses.
The disruption comes at a difficult moment for schools needing to communicate effectively with parents as coronavirus cases have spiked. Student attendance has fallen significantly since winter recess ended, and daily attendance has not topped 77%, with well over 200,000 student absences each day.
“There is never a good time for this to happen, but this is a bad time,” said Ari Hoogenboom, principal of Abraham Lincoln High School in Brooklyn.
With information about mental health and other sensitive data stored on the platform, some educators have raised serious privacy concerns about whether the information could have been breached.
Illuminate Education, the company that owns Skedula and PupilPath, has said little about the outage, which appears to have started last Saturday. A note on its website says that “indications are that this was the result of an attempted security incident.” A spokesperson for the company did not say whether any data was stolen.
The company’s chief operating officer, Scott Virkler, issued a statement that the company is trying to restore service as fast as possible and has “launched an investigation with the help of third-party experts.”
In a letter sent to school staff on Friday, Virkler wrote that the company is in the process of restoring its systems in a “secured” environment.
“We’ve restored attendance, gradebook, assignments, and anecdotal features, and the New York City team started internal testing on those features last night and will be testing over the next few days,” according to the letter obtained by Chalkbeat.
The company will provide an update on that internal testing on Tuesday, and the service would be restored “in phases,” he wrote.
The city has been in regular contact with Illuminate, said Sarah Casasnovas, an education department spokesperson.
“So far there is no confirmation any of our schools’ information was accessed or taken,” she said in a statement. “We will continue to monitor this situation very closely and inform students, families and schools of new developments.”
The education department’s separate databases where schools must enter final grades and attendance figures, have not been affected, according to Casasnovas.
Neither Illuminate nor the city’s education department said how many New York City public school students’ data is stored on the platform.
Complicating contact tracing
For an assistant principal at a Brooklyn middle and high school, losing access to Skedula has made the already-difficult job of contact tracing even harder. The assistant principal, who did not want to be named in order to speak freely, relied on Skedula for attendance information from each class period.
Scanning the attendance logs, she could quickly see who was in class with a student or teacher who had tested positive for COVID, as one person who tests positive may have been in classrooms with 70 other students throughout the day.
Now, teachers are taking attendance by passing around a blank sheet of paper and having students write their names down.
On Thursday, the assistant principal said she spent the morning with those sheets of paper spread out on her office floor, trying to decipher student handwriting and pulling from multiple databases to determine who had been around four different students who reported positive COVID results the night before.
“A one-hour process turns into a four-hour process. I literally do nothing all day but contact tracing — and it’s just gotten worse since Skedula’s out,” she said.
On other campuses, even mundane tasks have become complicated.
Neal Green, a teacher at Abraham Lincoln High School, was recently covering a colleague’s class and suspected one of the students in the room was pretending to be another student and cutting class. Normally, he’d pull up Skedula, which includes a photo of each student and match the face with the name. But Green had to get creative.
“I had the student spell his name and he spelled it wrong,” Green said. “So then I knew.”
His school has been able to recover some very limited information from the company regarding students’ current course averages, Green said, offering some hope that the system may soon come back to life.
Still, there is a growing sense of unease on some campuses about how teachers will compute grades that are coming due without access to their digital gradebooks.
“It can’t not come back,” Gorman said. “We don’t have a backup system.”