This fall, millions of students worldwide are engaged in online learning. While school software systems may have included vulnerabilities prior this point in time, the coronavirus pandemic has amplified these risks.

In many US school districts, limited resources exist to secure networks, to install patches, and to ensure error-free operations. Online systems constructed without authentication controls, and VPNs, for example, can easily serve as targets for hackers, who are continually searching for new targets.

“Many schools are ill-equipped to securely migrate to a completely digital learning experience, so it comes as absolutely no surprise that these vulnerabilities are so prevalent,” says a 17 year-old, who spent months identifying security flaws in his school district’s digital systems.

Online learning and ransomware:

In the past year or so, more than 1,000 educational institutions have experienced ransomware attacks. Last week, virtual classes within the Selma Unified School District, in central California, came to an abrupt halt after hackers deployed ransomware to take certain network systems hostage.

The school district’s IT personnel advised administrators to remove all participants for the network immediately. “We talked about the possibility of waiting to the end of school [end of the school day], but our IT folks said, just like any other infection, the longer you let it go the worse it’s going to get,” stated Assistant Superintendent of Business Services, Larry Teixeira.

Several programs were taken hostage, but students’ devices and information were not compromised. The district opted not to pay the ransom.

Top tips for school districts in protecting digital systems from ransomware:

  • Create backups of all data
  • Implement an authentication and identity management strategy
  • Consider automated cyber security systems
  • Scan your system for personally identifiable information and erase unnecessary data
  • Champion the cyber security basics

School districts need to improve their cyber security now. And in addition to thinking about system-wide issues, districts also need to consider cyber security from the student-parent perspective; how are students and parents guarding against cyber risk while logging in from home? For more on students and cyber risk, watch this clip.