K‑12 edtech has come a long way since the early 2000s. Staff can do more without involving the tech department, and students have the ability to learn from anywhere. While technology capabilities are at an all-time high for the public sector, there remain serious risks for ransomware attacks and other challenges for cybersecurity in K‑12 schools.
In fact, because schools are data-rich targets for cybercriminals, the education sector ranked 6th last year in the U.S. for the total number of security incidents.
Hackers work around the clock to harvest email addresses from school websites, gather information about staff from social media profiles, and identify vulnerabilities in the software you use every day. A district in Tacoma reported that they receive half a million emails every day, with only 10% of those being legitimate – meaning there are tens of thousands of opportunities for security incidents in a single calendar day.
In addition, with online learning in full effect, even more data is up for grabs due to the use of video conferencing tools and temperature scanning processes that store student health information.
The need for cybersecurity in K‑12 schools has heightened during the pandemic, but there are plenty of ways to protect student and staff privacy – even in today’s unprecedented conditions.
7 Ways to Protect Your K‑12 School Data
#1 Have a Plan
Do you have a backup plan for a staff member clicking on a phishing email and compromising your network? What about if school closes again and 100% of learning moves online overnight?
A well-thought out cybersecurity policy is a great place to start. (The SANS Institute offers templates for such policies.) An incident response plan is key to respond quickly in the event of a breach, but keep it simple. Having a solid and tested framework can go a long way in your efforts to contain an attack.
#2 Budget For Network Protection
In this day and age, it’s mandatory to make investments in data protection. Allocate budget for cybersecurity solutions (and the personnel to monitor them) early to save yourself the hassle later.
Hackers take advantage of holes in your software. With dynamic, behavior-based detection software, you can shield yourself from ransomware and other malware families. This is a must for cybersecurity in K‑12 schools.
Firewalls, supplementary email security, and encrypted data storage/backup systems also provide coverage against breaches, like phishing attacks.
#3 Require Multi-Factor Authentication
Multi-factor authentication (MFA) requires users to provide two or more verification methods to gain access to an online account. Rather than merely having staff enter a username and password to gain entry into your SIS and email, requiring additional factors of authentication greatly reduces your risk of cyberattacks.
Other authentication methods can include passwords, pins, security questions, or phone numbers, to name a few. MFA can reduce risk up to 99.9%. So, ensure any software or technology you plan on adopting is MFA-capable while you’re in the shopping phase.
#4 Host Staff Security Training
Awareness training on cybersecurity in K‑12 schools is key to preventing incidents. Educate staff on the common ways cyber criminals gain access to networks like sending phishing emails with attachments and links.
Increasing awareness to the vulnerability of these targets empowers employees to avoid providing access to the district’s network by accident.
On top of that, provide staff training on any new technology they’ll be using. For example, 65% of teachers said they were using platforms like Zoom for communication but only 19% received training.
Having a better understanding of the tool and being aware of the security implications can prevent a lot of issues in the future.
#5 Utilize The Cloud
Although it may seem counterintuitive to throw your data into the internet world—a hacker’s playground—the cloud is more secure than storing data on your own hardware or on paper.
Cloud architectures are safer because they have a uniform application of defense and are continuously logging and monitoring activity.
Plus, it’s up to cloud providers to stay compliant with ever-changing ordinances so you don’t have to; they have invested billions in security research, innovation and protection making them the best solution for your data storage needs.
#6 Establish a Technology Protocol
Policies and security awareness training can only do so much if you don’t have a conclusive understanding of the technology your staff is using. Ensuring all tools being used for school purposes are district-approved is another way to keep your data safe.
The pandemic has uncovered a need for new technology. With distance learning, and the use of video-conferencing tools, contact tracing applications, and temperature scanning, vulnerabilities have increased. Mandatory technology approval can help staff work with more secure tools and help you stay on top of potential threats.
#7 Communicate With Students & Families About Cybersecurity in K‑12 Schools
To help with buy-in for common cyber attack prevention methods, it takes more than just educating your staff. Students use the technology, too! They can also benefit from security awareness training as a life skill to protect their own privacy in the future.
It doesn’t stop there, parents and families should also be in the loop. While 72% of parents reported they trust a school with data, only 43% said schools have actually talked to them about how it’s protected.
Talk with families about how your district is keeping their information safe and how they can assist in the efforts to keep it safe.
Cybersecurity in K‑12 schools is more important than ever before.
While districts continue to take advantage of integrated technology solutions to help meet the new normal of online and blended learning, the need for cybersecurity continues to increase. It’s essential to allocate budgetary and personnel resources to the cause to safeguard student and staff information.
As a recap, you can greatly reduce the risk to your district by doing the following:
- Establishing a clear data security plan
- Adopting additional software as needed
- Boosting cybersecurity training for staff
- Ramping up communication efforts around cybersecurity
Installing network security helps, but increasing awareness and employing the help of students and staff is the best way to double-down on protection and keep private information private.
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