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Cybersecurity Threats Schools are Facing in 2021

September 1st, 2021 by admin

A young redheaded girl using a laptop for remote school

Classrooms have never been more connected, and because of that, they've never been more vulnerable to internet-powered threats. Many students are issued laptops or tablets instead of textbooks, while teachers and administrators rely on dozens of apps to provide instruction, track grades, manage bus schedules, create budgets, and orchestrate countless other school-related activities.

While this use of technology and data has helped digitally transform the educational experience and improve the way students learn, it has also significantly increased the attack surface for school districts. This becomes an even bigger problem when you consider how much of the data that schools collect relates to their students, making it imperative that this personally identifiable data be protected.

It's an unfortunate reality, but schools rarely have the funding for everything they need. In an era where even the largest corporations struggle to manage the expansive needs of cybersecurity, school districts typically lack budgets to train IT staff, hire security experts, or instruct users on how to avoid cyberattacks like ransomware or phishing.

So, what do you get when you have valuable personal records for students that are lightly protected? A failing grade for cybersecurity.

According to a 2020 study by Comparitech.com, K–12 school districts—along with colleges and universities across the U.S.—suffered more than 1,300 data breaches since 2005, impacting more than 24.5 million records.

And that was before the pandemic. In March 2020, almost every school in the country shut down in-person learning to reduce the spread of COVID-19. Literally overnight, schools and teachers had to switch to a completely remote learning model without any training, preparation, or resources.

Many school districts continued to practice remote learning exclusively in the 2020-2021 school year, while others used a hybrid approach of remote and in-person learning. In every case, schools had to quickly increase their reliance on technology for teaching and learning under tight deadlines that didn't allow adequate vetting, training, or securing.

Perhaps not surprisingly, this significant increase in remote learning resulted in an equally significant rise in cybersecurity incidents. According to the nonprofit K-12 Cybersecurity Resource Center and the K12 Security Information Exchange (K12 Six), there were 408 publicly disclosed school incidents in 2020, including student and staff data breaches, ransomware outbreaks, phishing attacks, denial-of-service attacks, and other incidents. With roughly two incidents per school day, this represents an 18% increase in incidents over the previous year.

Attacks can happen to any school district, no matter how big or small. Recent examples in 2020 include:

  • An attack that took place two days before Thanksgiving shut down the Baltimore County Public School System, disrupting online classes for 115,000 students.
  • An attack forced Hartford's school district to delay the first day of school for more than 18,000 students.
  • An attack on the Huntsville School District in December exposed student and staff Social Security numbers.

The Biggest Cybersecurity Threats Schools Face

According to K12 Six, the most frequently experienced cybersecurity threats K-12 schools faced in 2020 include:

Data Breaches and Leaks

Schools documented 145 data breach incidents, representing 36% of all incidents in 2020. These breaches involved unauthorized access to personal student, teacher, and staff data that can include everything from Social Security numbers to grades, behavior reports, or medical information that schools keep on file. Hackers can use the data for extortion purposes, or they may sell it to other criminals to use for identity theft, credit fraud, and account takeovers.


Schools reported 50 incidents of ransomware in 2020, representing 12% of attacks. In recognition of ransomware's growing threat to schools during the pandemic, the FBI issued an alert stating that "…cyberactors are likely to increase targeting of K-12 schools during the COVID-19 pandemic [with ransomware] because they represent an opportunistic target as more of these institutions transition to distance learning."


While representing only 2% of attacks, phishing attacks can be incredibly costly if an administrator is tricked into authorizing a large financial transaction. In 2020, K12 Six found four such incidents reported, ranging from $206,000 in losses when a school official inadvertently entered school board banking credentials into a malicious website to $9.8 million lost due to a communication compromise with a district's investment advisor and bank.

Denial of Service

While DoS attacks only represented 5% of attacks, they are extremely disruptive to education in a 100% remote learning environment. When students and teachers can't access their apps or data, it effectively cancels school and becomes the cyber equivalent of a snow day. In addition, hackers also invade unsecured class sessions held over video chat services (known as Zoombombing) to interrupt class with everything from hate speech to pornography.

How to Ensure K-12 Cybersecurity

The increased use of remote learning technology is here to stay—along with an increased risk of attacks. It's critical to continuously analyze, prioritize, and manage vulnerabilities to ensure students and their data stay safe. This requires 24x7, real-time cybersecurity operations that can help you monitor, detect, and respond to threats not only during the school day, but on weekends, holidays, and summer vacation. For most schools, this isn't something that can be easily managed in-house.

Request a quote to improve your education institution's cybersecurity now and get a free evaluation that answers these key questions and concerns.

  • How to make distance learning more safe and secure for students.
  • Why 24x7, real-time security operations are the only way K-12 schools can truly be secure.

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