K-12 Education and Cybersecurity Risks


Smartboards over projectors and laptops in place of books signify the start of technologically empowered classrooms. Covid-19 prompted a demand for online learning, beyond the growing application in the last 15 years. With the implementation of digital tools and services comes more access points for cyberattackers to commit crimes. Breaches and ransomware exist in both higher education and K-12 schools. Cyberattacks in the K-12 education system can cripple a school district. However, grade schools may have a harder time navigating cybersecurity and recovery. 

What Do Cyberattacks Do to School Systems?

Remote learning is indispensable to schools. A fact sheet from the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) advises readers about the “increase in malicious activity with ransomware attacks against K-12 educational institutions.” Cyber actors will often hack school computer systems. This slows down access and makes “systems inaccessible to basic functions, including remote learning.” The agency has noticed threats to release stolen data, requesting the administration pay a ransom. 

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How cyberattackers who interrupt live classes cyberattacks can harm schools:

  • Verbally harassing students
  • Displaying inappropriate and explicit content 
  • Doxing individuals in the meeting 

An article from GovTech on school cyberattacks speaks to the complexity of cybersecurity in schools and the IT that funnels down to “teaching and learning, school budgets, parent communication, and the protection of sensitive data about students and employees.” K-12 institutions tend to overlook IT departments. Often, it’s a long process not prioritized in the school budget spending. 

Similar to colleges and universities, grade schools need to protect their data. Both store immense amounts of data on teachers and students:

  • Salaries
  • Grades
  • Addresses
  • Contact information

Ransomware and Other Types of Attacks

Ransomware attacks can cause all sorts of havoc for K-12 education. This popular choice by cybercriminals enables them “to encrypt and block data access to computer systems.” Phishing emails mislead unsuspecting employees into sharing confidential information. This ploy then lets hackers block servers, logins, computers, and networks district-wide.

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Shortly after, school districts are overcome by financial and structural disasters:

  • Restricted learning
  • Possible financial difficulties for students and teachers from stolen information
  • Ransomware costs schools may not have the resources to pay
  • Recovery costs on top of ransomware costs
  • Increased cybersecurity insurance
  • Overall morale and trust in the school district, impacting its reputation

The resources for schools to prepare and prevent cyberattacks are few. There is not enough money for districts to hire IT professionals and it’s often hard to catch up to the sophisticated tactics attackers use. Once schools are able to figure out a strategy against a breach, hackers can switch up their approach to stay ahead. 

How a Cyberattack Disrupted a School District

Digital platforms such as Google Classroom, email, and Genesis are tools that grade school students can use. During a cyberattack, they are ineffective and thwart learning. 

In a severe case, a school was temporarily void of all technology functions and unable to distribute final exams. A cybercriminal attacked the Tenafly Public School District by encrypting “data by ransomware on some computers in the district’s network.” While technology teams worked nonstop to repair the issue, classrooms had to pause normal operations. 

This came at an ironic time according to the NJ.com article. The school district “had just completed a technology audit and was in the process of finalizing…recommendations” during the attack. 

Schools across the nation deal with cyberattacks. Depending on the district’s budget, time allocation, people management, and preparedness, cybersecurity may not be a top demand. Looking at statistics of attacks throughout the last few years can indicate this inadequacy. 

How Is Cybersecurity Affecting U.S. Schools as a Whole? 

Reports from The State of Ransomware 2022 [PDF] show:

  • For ransom payout, lower education was among the highest rates to pay at 53%
  • 60.4% of data was restorable after school districts paid the ransomware 

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The State of K-12 Cybersecurity: Year in Review [PDF]provides more insights:

From 2016 to 2021, 1,331 publicly disclosed school cyberattacks impacted U.S. school districts by causing: 

  • Student data breaches
  • Data breaches involving teachers and school community members
  • Ransomware attacks
  • Business email compromise (BEC) scams
  • Denial of service (DoS) attacks
  • Website and social media defacement
  • Online class and school meeting invasions

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Schools affected by state:

  • School districts with more populated states experience more cybersecurity attacks: Texas, California, New York, Illinois, and Washington
  • At the rate of K-12 cyber incidents per 100,000 students, Montana, North Dakota, Connecticut, Maine, and Hawaii may be experiencing more than their expected share of K-12 cyber incidents

These statistics, taken directly from the report, come from K12 Security Information Exchange (K12 SIX). As a national non-profit membership organization, they work to safeguard all K-12 schools from cyber threats.

K12 SIX provides readers with some final recommendations for schools to practice regular maintenance. Backups are an important step “against destructive attacks like ransomware through offline, immutable backups.

Security is central to software design at Macrium. Our applications give you complete control over where your data is stored and will operate fully offline for the most secure, air-tight networks.

Backups are another layer of protection to cybersecurity tools schools already have in place. Schools with cybersecurity prevention can benefit from the added assurance of backup image and recovery. 

Macrium Software works with existing IT infrastructure to make adding our software simple. Check out our website to learn about installing effective backups to prevent data loss at Macrium.com


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