‘Hardware failure’ blamed for schools’ communication breakdown in Fulton County

Old system failing as new system put into place, say officials

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ATLANTA – Each day, the Fulton County School System churns out more than a quarter million emails from 16,000 mailboxes, and links together 40,000 computers and 3,400 printers that keep the business of education humming.

So when an internal hardware failure last week ground all that to a stop for two days, a huge communication gap was created in every school and administrative building across the system.

High schools in the midst of End of Course Tests (EOCT) were forced to postpone testing until this week, and teachers accustomed to gathering information online and directing students to websites were forced back to papers, pencils and handouts. Parents who wanted to check on the child’s grades through Parent Connect, or to simply send an email to teachers or view the system website were unable to do so for more than 48 hours.

Officials with Fulton Schools said the hardware failure was not the work of external forces, such as a virus or hackers. The blame is being placed on an antiquated network system that has struggled mightily over the past few years to keep up with the growing reliance on technology.

Though the interruption to communication was something planners saw coming as old equipment is in the process of being upgraded, the level of interruption was unexpected.

“[Last week’s outage] was unprecedented,” acknowledged Scott Muri, deputy superintendent for academics. “We have had some [previous] system failures that were quickly repaired, but have not experienced [total outage] before. What we [experienced last week] was the failure of deteriorating and old hardware.”

But a fix is in place, buoyed by the nearly $200 million that will be generated over a five-year period from the one-cent Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST) through 2017.

While plans for technology upgrades have been included in the previous three SPLOST cycles, other capital improvements, such as new schools and bricks and mortar renovation, took precedence, leaving little to support a comprehensive technology plan.

With the passage of SPLOST IV and a steady stream of funding coming in, the Technology Strategic Plan is now in full throttle, said Muri. Considerable work has already been done in the past several months to begin closing the gaps on technology deficiencies.

This year, a feasibility study for upgrades to the system and local school network was completed, schools began getting hardware and infrastructure upgrades, email systems were enhanced, along with Internet connectivity improvements and high school video conferencing capabilities. Many more improvements and upgrades are planned for the next four years of the current SPLOST.

The two-day outage reinforced the need for technology improvements, as the system relies more heavily each day on electronic communication.

“We are now much more reliant than we have ever been on technology, and that need grows each day. Just think where we were 10 years ago and [compare] that to today,” said Muri.

He said teams worked around the clock to make repairs to the system last week, and got everything back up and running within two days. Muri said schools weathered the communication break well, keeping parents informed as best they could on the updated schedules for end of course testing.

“We are going to ensure the kids have a good testing experience, even with the delay,” said Muri, who noted several high schools offer the EOCTs online. “In fact, it might even be a positive thing to have a few more days of review in the courses.”