Improving Cybersecurity in Schools

By September 5, 2023Cybersecurity, EdTech
improving cybersecurity in schools

With most students heading back to the classroom, cybersecurity becomes a top concern for schools across the country, as cyber threats can impact school districts in a number of ways. School administrators are challenged by the pressures associated with protecting student data, meeting compliance regulations, and delivering sophisticated technologies to classrooms, all while staying within budget. It’s a tough balancing act, made even tougher by budget constraints and the reality that internal IT teams are being spread far too thin.

Schools Are a Big Target for Cybercriminals

Schools are held to a high standard when it comes to protecting constituent data and providing timely services. They are entrusted with a wealth of sensitive information, from student records to financial data. Safeguarding this information is crucial, to protect not only the students and staff but to help schools maintain compliance as well.

Yet schools have become the leading target for ransomware, in part because they not only store a volume of personal data on students and families, but also because hackers have the potential to tap into other, connected government systems through the school networks.

The threat is so serious that the current White House administration has joined the back-to-school cybersecurity fight with new efforts to strengthen school security. In a statement announcing their commitment, the administration explains:

The United States has experienced an increase in cyberattacks that have targeted the nation’s schools in recent years. In the 2022-23 academic year alone, at least eight K-12 school districts throughout the country were impacted by significant cyberattacks – four of which left schools having to cancel classes or close completely.

Common Cyberattacks on Schools

DDoS (Distributed Denial of Service). A DDoS attack causes a server to go offline after being overwhelmed by network traffic deliberately funneled to the server by a hacker. More than 250,000 DDoS attacks occur each year, including in schools.

Ransomware. Relying on human error, ransomware is the fastest-growing type of cyberattack targeting schools. An administrator who clicks on a link or a school professional who downloads a file can initiate the isolation of a school’s computer system until a ransom is paid. The cost to institutions falling victim to ransomware attacks can be in the millions.

Phishing. Hackers are adept at creating emails that look legitimate, and with the right insight, it’s easy to fool employees and trick them into divulging information or granting network access, unwittingly aiding the hacker in obtaining data.

Strategies for Improving Cybersecurity in Schools

To improve cybersecurity in schools, it’s crucial to employ a comprehensive approach that addresses various aspects of security. Despite the challenges, there are several strategies that schools can implement to help ensure compliance and enhance security:

Develop Comprehensive Cybersecurity Policies

Develop and execute a clear cybersecurity policy that outlines the school’s approach to cybersecurity. The security policy should define the necessary measures to protect sensitive data and ensure compliance with relevant laws and regulations. Develop a comprehensive incident response plan that details the steps to take in the event of a cybersecurity incident. Ensure that staff knows how to report incidents promptly.

Implement Ongoing User Training

Educators and staff should be aware of their roles and responsibilities for protecting student data and following best practices. Regular training sessions, workshops, and awareness campaigns can help reinforce good security habits and reduce the risk of human error. Educate students, educators, and staff about common threats like phishing, malware, and social engineering. Teach them how to recognize and respond to potential cyber threats.

Deploy Effective Security Measures

Establish protocols, from firewalls to antivirus software to intrusion detection systems, that help detect and prevent cyberattacks. Regularly update software and firmware to patch vulnerabilities and prevent potential breaches. Additionally, schools should consider implementing multi-factor authentication (MFA) to strengthen access controls. Essential security measures should include:

  • Regular backups – Implement regular data backups and ensure that backups are stored securely offsite and are retrievable in case of data loss or ransomware attacks.
  • Endpoint security – Install and maintain antivirus and anti-malware software on all school devices. Keep operating systems and software up to date; regularly patch vulnerabilities.
  • Access control – Implement strong access controls to ensure that only authorized users have access to sensitive data and systems. Use strong, unique passwords and implement MFA where feasible.
  • Network security – Install and regularly update firewall and intrusion detection and prevention systems to protect the school’s network. Additionally, regularly update and patch all networked devices, including computers, servers, and network equipment.
  • Data encryption – Encrypt sensitive data, both in transit and at rest, to protect it from unauthorized access. Encourage the use of secure communication tools for sensitive information sharing.
  • Physical security – Secure physical access to servers and network equipment to prevent unauthorized physical tampering.
  • Secure Wi-Fi networks – Use strong encryption and authentication methods for Wi-Fi networks. Regularly update Wi-Fi passwords and consider creating a separate network for guests.
  • Continuous monitoring – Implement continuous monitoring systems to detect and respond to real-time threats.

Ensure Vendor Security

Traditional rostering services copy and paste sensitive personal identifiable information (PII) to every edtech vendor. For better security, partner with a secure data exchange that gives the school more control and limits the data shared. Vet and monitor third-party vendors that have access to school systems or data. Ensure that vendors adhere to cybersecurity best practices.

Invest in Cybersecurity

Schools should invest in robust cybersecurity solutions that provide real-time threat detection and prevention. Network monitoring tools can help identify potential security incidents and enable timely response. Additionally, schools should leverage data encryption and secure cloud storage to protect sensitive information.

By taking a multi-faceted approach to cybersecurity, schools can reduce the risk of cyber incidents and protect sensitive data and the privacy of students and staff. It’s important to recognize that cybersecurity is an ongoing process that requires continuous vigilance and adaptation to emerging threats.

Partner with an Managed Service Provider

Partnering with a managed service provider (MSP) for compliance and security support can be beneficial for schools. IT consultants and cybersecurity experts can conduct security assessments, help develop tailored solutions, and provide valuable guidance. They can also assist in responding to security incidents and ensuring ongoing compliance with relevant regulations.

By prioritizing compliance and security, schools can safeguard student and staff PII. In an increasingly digital world, schools must take cybersecurity seriously. This requires a combination of tactics that include creating layers of security, controlling access to the network, training employees, and detecting threats as early as possible.

thinkCSC works closely with many Ohio school districts to help keep their data. We deploy innovative, affordable technology to help your schools maximize network efficiencies and minimize external threats. With a specific focus on the needs of educational institutions of every size, we offer unique solutions, dedicated technical support and expertise, and state-of-the-art security solutions specifically designed to meet the unique demands that apply in an educational setting.  Contact us to learn more.