Mitigating the cybersecurity crisis for the school year ahead

As students head back into the classroom, K-12 district leaders are faced with the difficult task of preventing and mitigating cybersecurity threats against their districts. School systems have become a popular target for cybercriminals over the last few years due to their growing reliance on technology and their wealth of data. It’s a growing problem that is producing costly ramifications for school districts of all sizes across the country who are already grappling with tight budgets, staff burnout and retention, and a myriad of other challenges.

schools cyberattacks

Types of attacks

Cybersecurity has long been a concern for school districts, but these concerns have intensified in the past two years. An increasing number of DDoS attacks have been targeting schools with the goal of shutting down operations, and some of them have even been orchestrated by students. Successful attacks can take a school district offline for several hours and severely disrupt learning environments for the student body and faculty.

Ransomware attacks are also prevalent in education because of their profitability and headline-making capabilities. In a ransomware attack, hackers break into a district’s network and encrypt the data, preventing the district from accessing it. They typically will charge a large ransom to decrypt the data, often millions of dollars, and if denied, they will sometimes publicly publish the data online, exposing the personal information of students and staff.

With all of these factors at play, one cyberattack can bring an educational institution to its knees, putting students’ data at risk, halting school operations and shutting down networks. The financial impact of cyberattacks on schools is equally devastating. On average, it costs education institutions $2.73 million to remediate the impact of a ransomware attack, including the cost of downtime, data recovery, device and network repairs, security updates and lost opportunity.

Why are cyber criminals drawn to schools?

K-12 school districts may not be the first target that comes to mind when you think of cyberattacks, but for cyber gangs, schools can be a goldmine.

First, school districts house a tremendous amount of sensitive data. Often, students’ and staffs’ names, addresses, day of birth and Social Security numbers can be found within a school’s database, making it highly appealing for a threat actor to either steal the data and sell it on the dark web or encrypt it and charge the district an exorbitant ransom to regain access.

Additionally, most school districts are highly reliant on technology and their networks to run their day-to-day operational systems. The move to remote schooling during the pandemic also accelerated reliance on digital learning. Teachers and students, many of whom are now equipped with 1:1 devices, are leveraging online learning tools and resources to enhance instruction, complete assessments and communicate outside the classroom. Hackers are aware of this growing dependence and are exploiting network vulnerabilities to bring learning and district operations to a halt.

Further, many school districts are facing workforce shortages and employment competition with enterprise business. Cybersecurity professionals play a pivotal role in ensuring that critical network infrastructure and complex information systems remain secure. But with 30% of the current workforce planning to change professions, the future of cybersecurity in schools hangs in the balance.

How can schools defend themselves against increasing cyberattacks?

With cyberattacks posing a very real threat to K-12 schools, it is important for districts to adopt a proactive approach regarding their cybersecurity posture. Now is not the time to be reactive and wait for an attack to happen; it is the time to take action. Here are three strategies schools should consider implementing to help protect their digital learning environments:

1. Create an ecosystem of security solutions with unified threat management

With unified threat management, schools can ensure that all security solutions work together to protect against internal and external threats. Unified threat management gives critical visibility and control of a network through a co-management portal, which enables a holistic approach to security. As a result, security infrastructure is simplified because security and network functions are combined into one ecosystem, making threat detection and mitigation easy to spot and execute, respectively.

2. Incorporate automated DDoS mitigation to protect against network attacks

An essential part of fighting against DDoS attacks is DDoS mitigation and scrubbing, which proactively scans and analyzes a network for attacks and removes malicious packets. A DDoS mitigation service with automated capabilities allows schools to embrace a “set it and forget it” mindset because it activates in real-time without depending on a user to analyze a threat and then make a mitigation request. With DDoS mitigation in the background, school operations can resume as usual without worrying about losing internet connectivity.

3. Segment network traffic to isolate the threat

Today’s influx of cyber threats have made it increasingly time-consuming and challenging to secure data and networks from malicious attacks. Leveraging smart network design and tools to secure district sites can significantly increase an organization’s ability to isolate security concerns as they arise and improve reporting and visibility across the network. Segmenting network traffic keeps network design manageable while reducing the attack surface and enabling faster, strong containment options.

As the school year kicks into high gear, the ongoing cybersecurity crisis should be viewed as a universal problem that is addressed not only by education leaders, but also policymakers and government leaders, education technology partners and vendors, school boards, and community members. Fostering district and community-wide conversations around this critical issue as well as developing and implementing cybersecurity strategies can help K-12 school districts prevent and mitigate cyberattacks.

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