The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

At a Mass. school, the lights have been on 24/7 since 2021. Here’s why.

Minnechaug Regional High School. (Screenshot via Google Maps)
4 min

As superintendent John Provost walks into his office at Minnechaug Regional High School every morning, all of the lights in the Massachusetts building shine bright.

When he walks out in the evening, they’re still on — at the same brightness, though they’re supposed to adjust based on daylight to conserve energy.

In fact, the roughly 7,000 lights at Minnechaug Regional have been on around-the-clock since August 2021, with no way for them to be turned off — an issue that residents of Wilbraham, Mass., where the school is located, have complained about.

The lighting issue, first reported by Minnechaug Regional’s student newspaper, is set to be fixed in February, after months of scheduling conflicts and supply-chain problems delayed the repair. Provost, the superintendent of the Hampden-Wilbraham Regional School District, said he hopes the scheduled repair brings an end to a long-standing problem that, in recent days, national media outlets have shined a light on.

“It’s not as simple as flipping a switch, which obviously we would have done if we could,” Provost told The Washington Post. “I wanted the local community to understand that it was not a matter of us ignoring the lights.”

Reflex Lighting and Cooper Lighting Solutions, the companies handling some of the repairs, said in a statement to The Post that the system upgrade would be finished “in the coming weeks.”

“The upgrade will not only restore functionality but also provide more advanced functionality to save the school even more energy,” the statement said.

Minnechaug Regional’s predicament even made its way onto the “Weekend Update” segment of “Saturday Night Live” this week, just days after NBC News became the first national outlet to report on the lighting glitch.

“The students are doing fine,” Colin Jost quipped. “But the classroom hamster has gone insane.”

A school district yanked chocolate milk off the menu. A 9-year-old got his entire class to protest.

The school’s lighting system malfunctioned after a malware attack in late August 2021.

When Lilli DiGrande, a student editor at Minnechaug Regional’s paper, the Smoke Signal, broke the story about the issue about two months later, her headline asked a simple question: “What’s Wrong With The Lights?

The answer? Well, it’s complicated.

Minnechaug Regional’s lighting system was installed in 2012, the same year the school was rebuilt, Provost said. It was meant to take advantage of natural light — the system would dim or turn off if it was bright outside, or vice versa, to save energy.

After the system was corrupted in 2021, it defaulted to being “on,” as it was designed to do so the building would have light even during emergency situations. The default left no way for school staff to control the lights.

The district was told its outdated system from 2012 must be replaced entirely — a $1.2 million project that would have to be completed over the summer. It wasn’t a feasible option, district leaders noted in a memo to the town board’s chairman.

Then came the next idea: replace parts of the system’s hardware and do a software update. It would be significantly cheaper and could be done in a matter of days.

But even with a new solution at the ready, another challenge arose. By the time orders had been put in for the new parts in November 2021, the equipment was delayed because of supply chain issues facing the world, exacerbated by the pandemic.

So for months, the lights at Minnechaug Regional stayed on. It frustrated teachers, especially those who wanted to dim classroom lights to show videos during lessons.

Inside America's broken supply chain

It took about a year for the parts to be manufactured and delivered, Provost said. When they were finally installed in October 2022, there was only one thing left to do: the software update.

It would take four days, and it needed to be during a break in the school year because the lights would flicker on and off during the update. Originally, the district planned for the update during its winter break, but the vendor had to delay.

Now, the plan is to finish the update next month, during the Presidents’ Day break.

“I actually believe that the national attention the situation has garnered has made me very hopeful that the next repair date won’t be missed,” Provost said. “And that we’re going to have a solution for our school and for our community in the very near future.”

And for other schools in the country that might be looking to install lighting, he had some advice: Make sure there’s a way to turn off the lights, even after a malfunction.