How to improve cybersecurity in the classroom

virtual data rooms

Technological capabilities allow more schools to provide remote learning days, devices to complete homework digitally, and smart whiteboards. While modern options bring many benefits to classrooms, they also present some unique cybersecurity challenges educators must consider to keep students and their information safe.

Top Cybersecurity Concerns for Educators

NPR reports that schools often lack sufficient funding for extensive cybersecurity, and hackers know the gap. Although numbers are hard to track, educational facilities are a frequent soft target for cybercriminals.

NPR says Albuquerque Public Schools in New Mexico experienced an attack on student records in 2022. The IT department shut the system down to protect student data. However, teachers could not take attendance, access grades, or see bus routes to and from school.

Some of the ways a cyberattack can impact education include:

  • Interruptions during remote learning sessions on Zoom
  • Personal data falling into the wrong hands
  • Entire grade books shutting down
  • Ransom demands for personal data
  • Hackers sending inappropriate messages to parents and students

Cybercriminals can bring learning to a halt and cause stress and expense to school districts already strapped for funds.

Steps to Improve Cybersecurity in the Classroom

How can schools improve cybersecurity on schoolwide systems and classroom and student devices to reduce the risk of a breach?

1. Update Software Frequently

One way cybercriminals tap into systems is via the backend of third-party software. Developers periodically release updates that contain security patches to protect users from vulnerabilities. Unfortunately, schools may lack enough IT staff. Updates can sit unresolved for months, opening servers up to hacking.

Suppose the district can’t hire additional staff to cover IT needs. In that case, it should consider having teachers handle basic updates on their machines to better protect them from security events. This usually involves hitting a call to action (CTA) button upon opening the software.

IT should set a monthly task to check for software updates and complete them. Outdated software may be one of the biggest risk factors for SQL injection attacks.

2. Upgrade Classroom Devices

Many schools utilize smart boards for classroom lessons. They can access online information and databases and record lessons for those watching from home. Students can also review them before tests. However, the technology only works if not ransomed or hacked into. Since cyber thieves can take over the board and put anything they’d like on it, updating the device becomes crucial to protecting students.

Similarly, if teachers utilize a computer to project images or videos for students, they can avoid malware or other issues by keeping everything up to date and adding antivirus software.

3. Create Password Rules

Simple passwords may be easy for hackers to guess. Create rules regarding creation, such as:

  • At least eight unique characters
  • One or more special symbols
  • A capital letter somewhere in the phrase
  • One or more numbers
  • Password not used elsewhere or easy to guess

The best passwords are auto-generated by a machine and have nothing to do with someone’s life, special dates, or things they like. Savvy hackers can pull information from a social media profile and guess passwords, such as pets’ names or birthdays.

4. Train Students and Staff

School officials should conduct training sessions to remind teachers, administrators, and students to follow rules of thumb. Teach them what phishing attempts look like and to never click on a link sent in a private message or email.

Role-playing can determine if someone responds appropriately. Hackers perfect their scripts with time. For example, they might track down the name of the high school principal, hack into student emails, and send out a message that they need an update. They may demand certain details that should remain private.

Officials should ensure everyone knows district policies, such as personal details always being in written form and never requested by email or phone. If such policies don’t yet exist, create them to protect students and staff.

5. Tap Into Two-Factor Authentication

Around 79% of people have used two-factor authentication at some point and are familiar with how it works. Adding a second layer of protection prevents hackers from guessing a password or using information they found on the dark web to get in via someone’s login credentials.

As soon as the system is accessed from a new device, it will request a code sent to a phone on file. It may have the person log into authentication software and generate a new one to input.

Some schools are turning to multifactor authentication, which requires several correct inputs to gain access. For example, users may have to input a username and password, verify they are a real person by clicking on a button or images, and respond to a message sent to a separate device verifying it’s them.

Schools often struggle with multifactor authentication because it requires students to have access to cell phones to confirm their identity. However, allowing students unfettered access to their smartphones during school hours can lead to a lack of focus and cyberbullying issues. Two-factor authentication lets them confirm via their school email rather than insisting they have access to non-school devices.

6. Hire Dedicated IT Personnel

Many schools lack enough IT staff to cover all potential threats. Smaller districts might have one person overseeing several schools in the area. This creates bottlenecks as administrators set up new equipment or add software needing security, leading to delays in responding to potential threats.

Ideally, schools should have one person per building to help with tech issues, set up new devices, and monitor the system for hacking attempts. This way, they can shut things down before hackers access the system.

7. Handle Stolen/Lost Devices and Former Employees

The school district should have clear policies for handling lost or stolen devices. Students losing machines may be less concerned than teachers with access to data on their roster of pupils. Still, any access point into the databases can create potential issues.

A skilled hacker can insert malicious code once they gain access. When issuing devices, school officials should create a way to shut the entire machine down from the main system so it can no longer access accounts.

Former employees might have malicious intentions, especially if they parted ways under less-than-ideal circumstances. Officials should create and maintain a policy of recapturing devices and eliminating login channels when someone leaves, or the school terminates the contract.

What Should Schools Do After a Cybersecurity Incident?

The U.S. Government Accountability Office Report for 2022 indicated that schools might take two to nine months to recover after a system attack. How the administration and IT staff handle the breach can affect the length of recovery.

  • Document details about the attack, such as a list of compromised information and where the attack came from.
  • Force password changes for everyone.
  • Remove old or unrecognized accounts.
  • Refresh security features and shore up the firewall.
  • Ensure every device accessing the databases has antivirus software.
  • Update all software.
  • Block IPs from the attackers.
  • Block whole countries from accessing the system.
  • Notify faculty, parents, and students about the breach and what the school did to stop the hackers and protect the system in the future.
  • Get the entire school watching for odd glitches that might indicate another breach.

There is rarely a reason for someone from another area to access the school system. In the instance of a virtual guest speaker, IT can give them temporary access without putting the databases at risk. The school should learn from past incidents by looking at system vulnerabilities and avoiding similar issues in the future.

As Technology Changes, so Does Cybersecurity

Risks emerge as new technologies arrive, such as advances in artificial intelligence and cloud computing. Hackers have more ways to get into school systems than before and proceed with database infiltration attempts.

Today’s school IT experts must be aware of the frequent types of attacks and be proactive in learning about new ones. Students put information such as birth dates and Social Security numbers in the hands of staff. Administrators are responsible for ensuring the details remain safe and out of the hands of cybercriminals.