Tech Leadership

Flirting With Disaster?

by Lane B. Mills

Recent events have shown us the destructive and random forces that can affect school systems. With districts' growing reliance on technology in the instructional and administrative arenas, superintendents should develop new plans or review existing ones for disaster recovery relating to technology and data. A well-conceived and communicated recovery plan can minimize lost instructional time while contributing to stability and faster recovery of technology use after a disaster. For a school system, an effective disaster recovery process involves thoughtful planning, good communication and practice.

A disaster recovery plan for technology can be thought of as a thorough discussion of the actions that should be taken at all phases of a disaster: before, during and after. Regardless of a school district's size or reliance on technology, the first step in planning is awareness of potential disasters and how they might affect your district.

In North Carolina, hurricanes have created serious havoc for technology and data systems in some of our schools. Flood waters from Hurricane Floyd in 1999 placed several schools under water. Not only did paper records stored in metal files suffer damage, but electronic records in our state student information system were lost. In other instances, power surges and lightning from intense thunderstorms have damaged technology. While less devastating than a school under water, the interruption of Internet connectivity and server-based applications can affect daily instruction, administrative activities and districtwide communication.

It is much easier to develop possible solutions and delineate preventive measures once you have brainstormed what the likely threats are to your school system's functioning. The involvement of your district's technology leadership at this stage of the process can add depth to your planning.

One function of a well-designed plan is that in the event of a disaster, the plan will serve to reduce the snap decisions needed in the area of technology and data recovery. But simply having a plan for potential disasters is not enough.

Communication about the plan should take place well before the onset of an emergency. Do all key staff members know the district has a disaster recovery plan for technology and their roles? Reviewing the plan should be ongoing. Communication should not just be the role of the district's technical staff. While we preach the need for smart computing all the time, the superintendent's discussion of the plan and its significance provides importance.

Deciding what the plan should cover will be driven by the degree of technology integration in your district's operations, yet common components exist.

Maintaining or restoring power is a fundamental concern. With the increased implementation of Voice over Internet protocol, or VoIP, as the main communication avenue for school systems, assuring power for the equipment will be a primary concern.

Communicating during all stages of a disaster, of course, is essential. Most school districts maintain some analog lines even though they may use VoIP. The use of cellular communications as well as radio systems may be important alternative methods.

In the prelude to a potential disaster, communication with all constituents can be provided quickly by using an emergency notification system that will call all available phone numbers for parents, staff and community contacts. Our school district has implemented this type of notification service. It calls and sends electronic notices to all students, staff and school board members in minutes.

Securing or restoring your data is also a main component of a disaster recovery plan for technology. Electronic databases for finance, instruction and accountability are vital records that should be protected. Many districts now are imaging important documents and storing them off-site with companies that provide redundant systems.

Practice, Practice, Practice
Having a recovery plan for technology and ensuring its success takes some practice. You would not expect 100 percent success in most endeavors without lots of practice or sheer luck so why would you leave your district's recovery plan for technology to chance? To ensure the reliability of your processes and equipment, implement test scenarios of your plan. Getting feedback from your staff regarding the outcomes of the practice event can help you refine your responses and minimize the time it takes to restore order in the event of a real disaster. As your district changes and its technology and data systems change with it, these practice sessions will become even more important.

While no one plan can cover the potential pitfalls for technology and data in a disaster, a solid and well-communicated plan can increase the likelihood of a quick recovery. As school districts become more dependent on the use of technology and data systems, the need for a fast and reliable response to potential disasters in our districts will only grow in importance.

Lane Mills is assistant superintendent of accountability and technology in the Wilson County Schools, P.O. Box 2048, Wilson, NC 27893. E-mail: lane.mills@mail.wilson.k12.nc.us