Nearly 40 percent of colleges and 30 percent of school districts admit they won't finish protecting essential computer systems against the Y2K bug by Oct. 1, an Education Department survey found.
"I'm concerned, because that doesn't leave a lot of time for them to correct their mission-critical systems this year if they fall behind schedule," said Bob Davidson, chief of the department's Year 2000 team.
The Y2K bug is a software flaw that can cause some older computers and electronic equipment to misread the date 2000 as 1900, potentially causing them to malfunction.
So far, only about 30 percent of colleges and school districts say that all key systems are Y2K-compliant, according to the survey, which promised confidentiality to encourage candid responses.
"It's good news that 99 percent say they will be ready by the turn of the year," Davidson said. "At the same time, it's right to call attention to the large number of educational institutions that are behind the pace set in other fields."
Some schools will face the first real-world test of their Y2K bug protections as early as Sept. 9, when some older computer programs will interpret 9-9-99 to mean "date is unknown."
The primary concern of most educators is the potential disruption in January. Critical systems help conduct such activities as cooling or heating building, registration and preparation of class and bus schedules, report cards, transcripts and payrolls.
Many schools also may have an additional burden New Year's Day: use as shelters if a Y2K emergency interrupts their community's supply of water, electricity or fuel.
So far, 38 percent of colleges and 76 percent of school districts admit that they have not completed a contingency plan that spells out what they will do if faced by the failure of their systems or systems beyond their control.
"I think lack of money is less of an issue than lack of organizational urgency," said Michael Casserley, executive director of the Council of Great City Schools.
Some schools are far along, he said. For example, some have adjusted their schedules to allow only staff and faculty in their schools for the first three or four days of next year, so that they can test all systems for safety and reliability before the students come back.
Others have purchased generators or battery backups for their computers or hallway lights.
The department's Y2K survey was answered by districts and schools that serve 38 percent of the nation's 45-million elementary and secondary students, and by 35 percent of the nation's 5,900 colleges and universities.