Ready for Anything

I’ve been thinking about Y2K lately.

Back in the late 1990s, the technology industry faced a serious problem with how computers stored dates. The societal norm was to use two digits for the year. Pearl Harbor was attacked on 12/7/41. The first moon landing was on 7/20/69. MTV started broadcasting on 8/1/81.

As the 1990s progressed, people started realizing that we had a problem. Because there were only two digits used for the year, 12/31/99 was assumed to be 1999. But that would be followed by 1/1/00, which would be assumed to be 2000. That was predicted to cause all kinds of problems. Financial systems would collapse. The electricity grid would fail. People wouldn’t legally be born yet, because the current “date” is before their birth date. Computer systems throughout the world could fail, leading to a dystopian collapse of society.

We became increasingly aware of the threat as the decade wore on. By 1998, there were major efforts underway to prevent the looming catastrophe. Software applications were re-written. Updates and patches were created, tested, and deployed to all kinds of systems throughout the world. Schools and governments and businesses had Y2K readiness plans, including steps to identify problems, certify mitigation efforts, and respond to issues after January 1, 2000. If you find a computer somewhere that was around during that period, it probably has a Y2K sticker on it, indicating that it has been patched and passed certification. It was a major global effort, costing hundreds of millions of dollars.

Y2K Sticker (Source)

On New Year’s Eve 1999, the world waited to see what would happen. Was this the end of modern civilization? There were a few problems, but for the most part, they were minor. There were some false alarms in energy production monitoring systems. There were a couple control problems with satellites. A few people received inaccurate medical test results. Some web sites briefly displayed the year as “19100”. For the most part, the disaster was averted.

The public reacted with an odd mixture of relief and annoyance. While it’s great that society didn’t collapse, why did we just spend so much time and money on a problem that wasn’t nearly as serious as it was purported to be?

The answer, of course, is that the disaster was averted because of the preparation work. By focusing on the challenge, finding solutions, and making sure those solutions were consistently documented and applied, the technology was ready for Y2K.

Last year, we spent hundreds of hours preparing to open school in the midst of a global pandemic. Some teachers worked all summer to figure out how to teach elementary school students through video conferences. We developed plans for remote learning, and offered that option to our families. We created protocols for sanitization and social distancing and temperature tracking and traffic patterns. We adjusted schedules to reduce the amount of interaction students have with one another. We closely monitored state and county infection rates and health department guidelines, which changed frequently. We put plans in place for in-person, hybrid, and remote learning, including schedules, procedures, and expectations for each of those modes. We kept our community informed with video conferences, FAQ pages, and special contact numbers for questions about the school’s Covid response. Covid consumed the summer, as it well should have. It was the top priority, and it dominated every meeting agenda, every conversation, every action plan. When school started, we were ready.

As the year progressed, we were very fortunate to be minimally affected by the pandemic. The measures we took worked. The plans were solid. It went from consuming several hours per day to only taking several hours per week. In my school, kids stayed in school all year. Our infection rates were low. There were no remote or hybrid periods. We learned to cope with the pandemic, and we moved forward with other plans and initiatives. It wasn’t a normal year by any stretch of the imagination, but it was a lot more normal than we had planned for.

When the school year ended, it looked like we had turned the corner. Infection rates were low and declining. Mask mandates were eliminated. Everyone who wanted to be vaccinated had already received both doses. Things were starting to open up. The worst was behind us. Students and teachers went home thinking that the nightmare was over. The 2021-22 school year would be a lot closer to normal than anything we’ve seen in the last 18 months.

But as summer has progressed, it’s now looking like we might be in worse shape than we were a year ago. Infections are increasing dramatically. Options for remote learning are not in place, at least in my school. State guidelines have made it much more difficult for schools to offer full time remote-instruction, including the need to set up a separate school to offer it. Legislative action has reduced the ability for the governor or state health officials to impose emergency health mandates. We have had no discussions of what a move to hybrid or remote instruction might look like this year. Most of the restrictions and adjustments that were in place at the start of last year are gone. And we’re not even talking about them.

Infections per 100k population, July 1 – August 7, 2021

We’re tired of the pandemic. I can see the fatigue on the faces of our leadership team and our teachers, parents, and students. We don’t want every conversation to be focused on Covid anymore. We just want to be done with this. But it’s not over.

The secret to success in a crisis is to be prepared. While the specifics of the situation may not exactly match the scenarios planned for, the real value comes in the planning. The exercise of going through possible scenarios, needs, resources, and contingencies forces us to think pragmatically and strategically. Making plans, adjusting them, scrapping them, and re-creating them helps us sharpen our ability to react, adjust, and respond to changing realities. We did all of that last year. Fortunately, we didn’t need most of the planning that was done. But we should dust those plans off and think through them again. We should be prepared for uncertainty and the need to react quickly. We can still be optimistic about a normal year. We all want a normal year. We all need a normal year. But this might not be a normal year. We need to be ready for that, too.