Add computer hackers to COVID and increasingly severe weather to the growing list of challenges forcing administrators to shut schools down more frequently. While these closures may be shorter, they can often be just as disruptive. Most recently, a cyberattack disabled several key computer systems at Albuquerque Public Schools, compelling administrators to cancel classes on Thursday and Friday.
The attack “compromised some systems that could impact teaching, learning, and student safety—this includes the district’s student information system used to take attendance, alert parents of student absences, contact parents in emergencies, and assure that students are released from school to authorized adults only,” the district said on its website.
The district was working with outside experts to resolve the disruptions but hadn’t yet determined whether schools would remain closed Friday. Athletic events and other extracurricular activities, however, had not been canceled.
The Albuquerque attack occurred on the same day Wisconsin’s Neenah Joint School District reopened all of its buildings after a cyberattack earlier this week. Neenah shut down on Tuesday after a cyberattack caused an outage of its internet and phone systems as well as several software applications. The district said it has no reason to believe any confidential or personal information was compromised. “The decision to cancel is based on three factors that we believe need to be in place in order to safely and appropriately resume school: a working phone system, a working wireless system and staff access to their digital files,” it posted on Facebook.
In December 2020, when a ransomware attack closed Huntsville City Schools for about a week, the superintendent provided the community with daily and extensive updates. Students and staff were advised to keep district devices turned off and asked not to log into any district platforms. When school resumed, teachers and were forced to limit their use of technology.
The district and its forensics experts eventually determined that no student information was compromised during the attack. As a precautionary measure, administrators replaced all teachers’ devices and collected (and later reissued) all high school students’ devices.
Here’s a rundown of published reports of other recent cyberattacks that have closed schools:
- The Eldon School District in Missouri was closed for a day in December after a ransomware attack. (MyOzarksOnline.com)
- Hillsborough Township Public Schools in New Jersey went remote for nearly a week in April 2021 after an attack disabled the district’s computer system. (TAPintoHillsborough)
- Student and staff personal information was hacked during a major cyberattack against Broward County Public Schools in March 2021, while schools were already closed for remote instruction. (GovTech.com)
- Baltimore County Public Schools in November and December 2020. (The New York Times)
What can you do about it?
The number of cybersecurity incidents in public schools jumped from less than 100 in 2016 to more than 400 in 2020, according to the “State of K-12 Cybersecurity: 2020 Year in Review” report.
During that time, larger, urban and suburban school districts serving higher-income communities were much more likely to be attacked, the report found. School districts serving larger than average proportions of students in poverty also faced a significant threat.
“The 2020 calendar year saw a record-breaking number of publicly disclosed school cyber incidents,” the report says. “Moreover, many of these incidents were significant: resulting in school closures, millions of dollars of stolen taxpayer dollars, and student data breaches directly linked to identity theft and credit fraud.”
The report makes several recommendations for policymakers, education leaders, and vendors:
- Invest in greater IT security capacity dedicated to the unique needs of schools
- Enact federal and state school cybersecurity standards for districts and vendors
- Support K-12-specific cybersecurity information sharing and research
- Investing in the development of K-12-specific cybersecurity tools.
- School districts should devote resources to better vetting the security policies and practices of vendors at the time of procurement and periodically over the life of a contract
- Awareness and implementation of basic cybersecurity hygiene practices for students and staff will be key to securing the K-12 ecosystem of IT applications and services.
“Until school districts have the resources and infrastructure in place to support them in implementing cybersecurity programs, general federal and/or state cybersecurity guidance—in the absence of resources to implement such guidance—is unlikely to be acted upon in a timely manner, if at all,” the report concludes.