K-12 Cybersecurity Best Practices in 2024
When preventing physical and cybersecurity threats, nothing is more important than protecting our children and their families, educators, administrators, and technology experts.
Our schools are top targets of those looking to exploit them for profit or cause significant damage due to the large amount of personal data that K-12 schools manage on behalf of students and school staff, as well as information on the physical attributes of the buildings.
According to Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) Director Jen Easterly, cyberattacks on K-12 schools are so prevalent that “on average, there’s more than one incident per school day.”
Challenges in K-12 Cybersecurity
Increasing Cyber Threats in Educational Institutions
Data reveals that cyber threats to K-12 schools are on the rise. According to a recent survey by Sophos, the education sector reported the highest rates of ransomware attacks of all industries surveyed, including transportation, construction, government, and healthcare. Even more concerning, according to that same report, 80% of lower education providers reported being ransomware victims in the last year, up from 56% in 2022.
Lack of K-12 Cybersecurity Awareness and Training
Many school districts need more resources to launch and maintain a robust cybersecurity program. Most school districts do not have a full-time cybersecurity role on staff, and often, the job of performing information security falls on the IT Director, who has broader responsibilities. This lack of resources and personnel means that most educators and students do not understand K-12 cybersecurity sufficiently—this number is even lower in poorer school districts.
Balancing Technology Integration with Security
In addition to rising cybersecurity threats, K-12 schools are seeing a rise in physical threats and other security challenges, such as crime and drug use. Given the limited resources to handle these security issues, K-12 schools must balance safety, teaching, and operations while maintaining a vibrant community.
Compliance with Data Protection Regulations
Data protections, such as the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974, require that student and school data be kept private and confidential. For K-12 school districts, protecting student health records, transcripts, and personal identifying information is a must. While these data protections have been in place, regulations have been increasing. The K-12 Cybersecurity Act, for example, launched in 2021, is the first K-12-specific set of laws designed to protect students, families, faculty, and staff. While this is good news, compliance with these new regulations often falls on the existing staff who are already over-stretched.
Impact of Cybersecurity in Education
With increasing cyber threats and limited resources, educators and administrators cannot simply ignore that any attack can impact a school’s ability to carry out its obligations to educate, protect, and provide a safe and productive learning environment so all students can thrive.
Reliance on technology has only increased, with students commonly performing research on a school-issued laptop, completing assignments online, and communicating with teachers.
Ensuring a safe digital learning environment is something we must get right. Therefore, raising awareness as well as implementing effective cybersecurity measures are necessary.
K-12 Cybersecurity Awareness and Training
To be effective, cybersecurity training should bring awareness to students, teachers, and administrators of both K-8 and 9th-12th grade.
To make training more engaging, educators can promote interactive training methods, including using online games to promote cybersecurity awareness and physical activities such as escape room challenges that allow everyone to apply cybersecurity concepts.
Other ideas include phishing awareness training for students and educators and training for technical personnel, such as tabletop exercises. CISA maintains a list of exercises and free resources to assist in training activities.
Implementing Robust Security Infrastructure
All technical solutions that are under consideration must reduce identified cybersecurity risks. A robust IT infrastructure will provide a strong defense against continuing cyber threats while improving the protection of personal information.
Consider these two technical solutions that may reduce your school’s specific risks:
- Deploy a strong password management policy that includes multi-factor authentication (MFA). MFA is a multi-step account login process that requires users to enter more information than just a password. Establishing a policy with password standards, including MFA, can ensure that malicious actors cannot get unauthorized access to private data or critical systems.
- Identify standard controls that may be beneficial in your environment. These include email security, intrusion prevention, anti-virus software, advanced firewalls, vulnerability management, URL filtering, vulnerability management, and data loss prevention. Review a common framework, like the NIST Cybersecurity Framework, for more information on standard controls.
Implementing Cybersecurity Measures
Don’t wait until the next cyberattack to implement effective cybersecurity measures appropriate for your school. Planning for potential threats and continuous monitoring will be ongoing. Below are several steps you can take to make any measures more effective:
- Assemble a team of people who can help to plan the cybersecurity implementation. This group should also be able to provide feedback on a comprehensive risk assessment. This team should include law enforcement or emergency management members.
- Conduct a thorough risk assessment. A risk assessment is essential to identifying and understanding potential vulnerabilities, threats, and risks that could compromise the security of students, teachers, and administrators, as well as the physical aspects of the school. An essential element of this assessment is knowing what data, devices, and systems your school has, who has access to it, and what protections are in place.
- Once you understand the risks and potential threats better, develop a plan to mitigate the identified risks. Prioritize all potential risks to understand better which needs to be mitigated first and how to allocate resources. The plan will also identify actions and controls required for mitigation.
- With all risks now prioritized, begin to implement the plan. To effectively implement this plan, assign one person to own each action and identify and name those carrying out each action and control. Establish communication and coordination to be sure the plan stays on track by holding regular meetings and providing status updates to all stakeholders.
- At critical points, such as after a system change or policy rollout, provide training for all educators, administrators, and staff who may be impacted. Ensure they understand the changes so they are effective. Remember to emphasize the risks mitigated so the importance is clear.
- Finally, regularly audit all controls and continuously monitor all security measures that have been implemented. Ensure you are continuously aware of any potentially new threats so controls and security measures can be improved before an attack occurs. Monitoring and updating should be proactive and ongoing, reflecting the dynamic nature of the cyber threat landscape.
How RapidScale and Cox Business Can Help
RapidScale and Cox Business offer a suite of services tailored for K-12 schools, encompassing advanced technology solutions like SD-WAN, Email Security and Domain Protection, Backup as a Service (BaaS), and Disaster Recovery as a Service (DRaaS).
These services are designed to enhance network performance, security, and data protection, all while being cost-effective and easy to manage:
- SD-WAN optimizes internet performance and reliability, significantly reducing bandwidth and operational costs. It enhances security through encrypted traffic and streamlined security policy management. ‘
- Email security solutions, including Mimecast DMARC Analyzer, protect against phishing, spam, and data breaches while ensuring compliance with data privacy regulations.
- RapidScale’s Backup as a Service offers scalable cloud storage, addressing schools’ unique challenges with limited IT resources, and includes disaster recovery to protect against cyberattacks and natural disasters.
- Finally, their Disaster Recovery as a Service ensures off-site backup of critical data, automates regular backups and facilitates rapid recovery in the event of a disaster.
This comprehensive approach by RapidScale and Cox Business, with their commitment to customer satisfaction and support, provides K-12 schools with robust, scalable, and efficient technology solutions.
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