A few days before the Aug. 3 start of school, cybercriminals attacked the computer network of the Athens, Tx., Independent School District, encrypting data and demanding $50,000 in ransom for its release. Access to everything from teacher communications to student assignments was blocked. “It was terribly disruptive, to put it mildly,” said spokesperson Toni Clay. “We no longer had access to any student information, such as schedules, email addresses, anything that would be stored. Internally, we had no staff information. It was all frozen.” Officials delayed school for a week. Athens is one of at least 16 school districts, from California to New Jersey, that have been victimized in a rash of ransomware attacks since July, Stateline reports. Some have been forced to push back school reopening. Others have canceled classes for a day or more.
The attacks have placed a heavy burden on school administrators as they decide whether it’s safe for students and teachers to return in person and whether schools are prepared to handle social distancing and other requirements. School information technology staffs have been consumed with the transition to virtual learning, making districts more vulnerable to hackers. “School district IT shops were supporting the network and the remote environment and software upgrades and training. They were overwhelmed by requests for help in ways they had never seen before,” said Alan Shark of the Public Technology Institute, a nonprofit consultant. “People’s attention spans at the security end probably got dissipated trying to put out all these fires.” As schools reopen, laptops taken home by students, teachers and administrators are being reconnected to school networks, which could make it easier for criminals to introduce malware, said Doug Levin of EdTech Strategies, an Arlington, Va.-based technology consulting firm. In 2019, there were at least 62 ransom attacks on schools, compared with 11 the previous year.