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Before N.Y.C. Snow Day Debacle, IBM Had Warned of Tech Limitations

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When New York City held virtual classes during a winter storm last month, the system ran into major tech problems. But officials unfairly blamed IBM for the debacle, according to a company representative and several City Council members who spoke at a hearing on Wednesday.

On Feb. 13, students and teachers struggled to log on to their classes when the entire city moved to remote learning for the first time since schools reopened after pandemic closures. The schools chancellor, David C. Banks, said his team was fully prepared, and that IBM — which provides tech services to verify users for the district — was “not ready for prime time.”

But on Wednesday, the company pushed back on the city’s claim.

“It was not a failure of IBM technology,” Vanessa Hunt, a senior executive at IBM, said.

Some classes were canceled after thousands of children could not log on for remote learning during a February winter storm.Credit…Gregg Vigliotti for The New York Times

What Happened: The city had not hired IBM to handle a remote learning surge this large.

Ever since schools closed during the pandemic, many districts have opted to forgo typical snow days and instead hold classes virtually. Last year, city officials asked schools to test virtual instruction in preparation for days when school is closed because of weather conditions.

But IBM was not directly involved in the simulations.

Since around 2019, IBM had been expected to provide 400 logins per second for the district, according to its contract. At around 1 p.m. on Feb. 12, school officials notified a member of IBM’s technical team that “there may be a remote learning day the next day,” Ms. Hunt said during testimony before the City Council on Wednesday.

The notification came three hours after a public announcement by the school district that schools would be remote the next day. And it did not include any executive leaders at IBM, Ms. Hunt said.

When more than 900,000 children and educators tried to join classes at around the same time on Feb. 13, the company’s systems were overwhelmed by the surge.

“The Department of Education had a closet door when it needed a barn door,” Ms. Hunt said at the City Council hearing. “At over 2,000 transactions per second, everyone tried to rush through that door at once.”

Why It Matters: The city has struggled to respond to severe weather.

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