Albuquerque Public Schools superintendent Scott Elder poses for a photo in front of Highland High School on August 11, 2021 in Albuquerque, NM Albuquerque Public Schools says classes will be for a second day on Friday, January 14, 2022 A cyberattack canceled on the district’s student database resulted in the near-complete closure of classes on Thursday, January 13th. Image credit: AP Photo / Cedar Attanasio, file
When the Albuquerque Public Schools principal announced earlier this week that a cyberattack would cancel classes for around 75,000 students, he found that the district’s technology department had blocked attacks “in recent weeks”.
Albuquerque is not alone, as five school districts in the state have suffered serious cyberattacks in the past two years, including one district still grappling with a cyber attack that occurred shortly after Christmas.
But it’s the first report of a cyber attack that had to cancel classes, which is all the more disruptive as schools are trying to keep personal learning going during the pandemic.
“If it looks like I’ve come to your house many times over the past few years to share difficult news with you, you’re right. And here I am again, ”Superintendent Scott Elder said in a video address Thursday. “We face another challenge.”
The Thursday and Friday closings affect roughly one in five school children in New Mexico’s 35th school district after starting school, according to 2019 data from the National Center for Education Statistics. The district was one of the last in the state to reopen last year, as vaccines became available.
The small town of Truth or Consequences discovered a cyber attack on December 28 and has still not gained control of its computer systems.
“We’re not out of the woods yet,” said Mark Torres, the information technology director for the school system in Truth or Consequences, a small town in central New Mexico.
The attack has not yet been reported. It came when the students were on vacation, allowing time to make contingency plans before the students returned. Torres says that while the attack “made computer systems unavailable,” the disruption was minimal.
That was not the case in Albuquerque, where teachers discovered Wednesday morning that they were locked out of the student information database, which tracks attendance, records emergency contacts for students and determines which adults are allowed to pick up which students at the end of the school day.
In 2019, Las Cruces Public School also suffered an attack on its student information database after a phishing attack tricked one or more employees into clicking a malicious link in an email months earlier, recalls Matt Dawkins, who IT director for this district.
After a hacker or hackers caught and spied on the district’s system, they carried out a ransomware attack. Data on many school computers, starting with the student database, has been encoded. A ransom was requested for the key.
“It’s like your house is being robbed, you know? That feeling of being hurt,” Dawkins said in an interview Thursday when his school was locked down a mile away due to an unrelated police call.
The school failed to pay the ransom and eventually found a way to restore its data systems to the state they were in the day before the attack. But it took months of hands-on work and additional spending on temporary Wi-Fi hotspots and a few new computers. Most of the cost of the attack was covered by insurance.
In the past two years, at least four other schools in New Mexico have been hit by costly cyberattacks, according to Patrick Sandoval, interim director of the New Mexico Public School Insurance Authority, which insures all districts in New Mexico except Albuquerque.
Destinations in the US in 2021 included universities, hospitals, and a large fuel pipeline. Data on the number of attacks and their costs is difficult to track, but the FBI’s 2020 annual report on cyberattacks said that around $ 4.1 billion in damage was reported by institutions across the country this year.
Dawkins added that if Albuquerque faces a ransomware situation that has not been confirmed, it could face a more complex attack. Instead of holding information hostage, ransomware attacks now threaten to sell data to the highest bidder online. So not only could student data in Albuquerque be locked up, Dawkins said, but it could also risk being shared with identity thieves and other malicious actors.
Albuquerque Public Schools did not say whether the cyberattack they were exposed to was a ransomware attack, only that their student information database was “compromised” and that they are working with law enforcement agencies and contractors to limit the damage.
Whatever the cause, they face a similar problem as Las Cruces did in the days following the attack.
The database used to track attendance and other students was out of order. It was also realized that laptops had to be quarantined and taken out of service, forcing teachers to work offline.
“Our teaching department was instantly turned over with pen and paper, you know, kind of old-fashioned teaching, so our printing house was printing materials. The teachers were able to adapt very quickly, ”said Dawkins.
Officials from the Albuquerque Public School failed to clarify the decision to close schools and on Thursday failed to respond to inquiries as to why a paper system was not possible.
The decision to continue teaching at Las Cruces came at a price. Dawkins said it likely took longer to wipe and reset the school’s thousands of computers while teachers and administrators worked at normal hours and lived without technology for weeks.
In January 2020, the district’s computers were running again and on time – the pandemic forced teachers and students to take distance learning just a few months later.
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