How a Virus Hurt Pennsylvania Education

There is a sickness that continues to afflict Pennsylvania education – from kindergarten all the way up through the state’s colleges. No, I’m not talking about the usual suspects we cite for our troubles. I have in mind two computer bugs.

It has been six weeks since a pair of computer viruses – the Blaster worm and something called SoBig.F – wreaked their havoc. The damage done, and the arrest of one of the perpetrators, apparently completed its news cycle a few weeks ago. But while the matter is no longer in the news, the harm caused by these viruses festers.

We heard about how these viruses did everything from halting Air Canada to costing billions of dollars to businesses and boroughs. Yet, little attention has been given to how Blaster and SoBig.F undercut education. I can personally speak to two examples here in Pennsylvania.

Like thousands of parents, my wife and I school our children through the Pennsylvania Virtual Charter School. PAVCS is a combination charter/home-school that partners with K12, a national education provider, and Pennsylvania’s Norristown Area School District.

The lifeline to this excellent program is our computer, which is provided through K12. The curriculum, as well as email system – which is vital for daily communication among K12 teachers, advisers and administrators – is accessed through the computer. When that computer shuts down, things are complicated quite a bit.

One of these viruses destroyed our computer – as it did those of countless K12 parents. In response, K12’s superb technical staff has worked around the clock for weeks, Fed-Exing new software, talking patiently with parents for hours and trying their best to convert moms and dads into software-installation experts. Predictably, despite best efforts, this has not always worked out smoothly.

Our daily lifeline is still flat-lined and has been replaced with long, painstakingly planned visits to a friend or family member’s computer. Just yesterday we concluded that the PC was so ravaged by the virus that we simply had to order a new computer altogether.

Importantly, this is hardly happening merely with PAVCS or K12. Public schools throughout the Commonwealth were victimized. In all, these viruses cost the Pennsylvania educational system – and taxpayers who fund it – a pile of money and time. And the biggest losers are kids.

This was likewise true for higher education in this state. I teach at Grove City College. Freshmen at GCC are awarded a laptop simply for enrolling. For the first time, our nearly 600 freshmen were unable to happily flip open their new computers. On the first day of classes, the Help Desk at our technology center patched more than 300 computers. Weeks passed before things got back to normal. Our computer personnel worked even harder than usual.

And yet, as GCC’s chief information officer put it, our situation was not nearly as bad as what other colleges went through.

Those who created these viruses may have targeted Bill Gates or Microsoft or corporate America. They may have been simple pranksters. Yet, their antics hamstrung our educational institutions; in my home, they literally undermined our ability to teach our kids. If those responsible are interested in seeing those they hurt, they should continue past the office park and drive by the playground and schoolyard.

Since these viruses did their dirty work, I’ve heard various defenses for the perpetrators. “This kid who created this virus had no idea of the cause it would harm,” goes the usual argument. “He shouldn’t be thrown in jail. He’s just a teenager!” I completely disagree. These individuals brazenly and knowingly cause very serious damage. The economic costs are staggering, and the effect on intellectual property is devastating.

Indeed, a virus that eviscerates my hard-drive is far more harmful than a common criminal who steals my television, VCR and smashes my windows. Insurance covers the TV, VCR and windows. However, a document containing years of thoughts, words, and work is not replaceable.

Sure, we should back up our computer work every day. But quite often, we’re so busy that we forget – and forgetfulness ought not open the door to disaster by those bent on destruction. Not a day goes by in which I open my email and find at least two new viruses. Not a day passes that I don’t vigilantly update my virus-protection software.

Enough is enough. These “kids” spawning these viruses will not stop until they understand that serious punishment waits, including jail time.