Are School Districts Starting to Understand the Scope of Security Threats?

School Infrastructure

Are School Districts Starting to Understand the Scope of Security Threats?

By Emily Tate Sullivan     Jan 7, 2019

Are School Districts Starting to Understand the Scope of Security Threats?

A few years ago, cybersecurity threats were not on the radar of most school district leaders, much less top items in their budgets. But today, it’s one of the highest priority issues facing school technology departments.

That’s according to the sixth annual broadband and infrastructure report released by the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN), a nonprofit made up of K-12 school technology leaders.

An increasing number of district leaders are realizing the importance of bolstering their network security, the report found, and their budget priorities reflect as much.

“School districts, like every organization and person in the world, are concerned with keeping data private and secure,” Keith Krueger, CEO of CoSN, tells EdSurge. “It’s dramatically up from recent years.”

Based on responses from 386 U.S. school districts, more than one-third (36 percent) of districts spend 10 percent or more of their technology budgets on network security, and another third (31 percent) direct between 5 and 9 percent to security issues.

These security funds are often spent on services such as breach detection and security vulnerability assessments. It may also include cybersecurity insurance, real-time monitoring, or training for IT staff, among other services.

Things like infrastructure, professional development and the actual purchase of technology equipment will continue to top the list on a technology budget, Krueger says. But network security is easily the fastest-growing line item.

“Three or four years ago, school districts were spending very, very little on this. We are still, probably, in school systems spending less than what other sectors do, but it’s dramatically increasing,” he says.

For many districts, the heightened response is borne out of necessity. Security breaches, from phishing scams to ransomware attacks, occur so often now that only the biggest ones make headlines. The recent data breach at San Diego Unified School District, which is estimated to have affected 500,000 current and former students, is one such example.

Amid the improvements on budgets, however, one area of security response remains neglected: staffing.

According to the CoSN report, just 12 percent of school districts have a designated employee to address network security issues. Instead, the majority of districts either outsource security oversight or divide the responsibilities across several other positions.

“Awareness is up, budget is up, but people are still scarce,” Krueger says, optimistically adding that he thinks it’s only a matter of time before technology heads and superintendents recognize that staff, too, are an essential component of network security. “I think we’re on the tip of the iceberg still.”

In the survey, school district representatives also answered questions about E-rate, broadband connectivity, cloud computing and data interoperability.

Notably, fewer than 10 percent of responding districts can report that all of their students have access to a shared device at home, which means the vast majority of districts are grappling with the issue known as the “homework gap.”

The homework gap is defined as the disadvantage felt by students who are using digital learning in school but don’t have adequate connectivity at home to continue schoolwork after hours. To Krueger, it’s a matter of equity. He put it this way: “Could you have an equal chance to apply for college if you’re at McDonald’s on your mobile device, versus if you’re at home on your desktop?”

According to the report, 35 percent of districts are not offering any off-campus services to address the homework gap with their students. Yet others are using a variety of approaches to solve the problem. Fourteen percent are partnering with businesses in the community to allow students access to Wi-Fi hotspots after hours, 10 percent are letting students check out district-owned Wi-Fi hotspots that they can use in their homes and 6 percent are providing free or subsidized internet access to low-income families.

Another alternative is outfitting school buses with Wi-Fi so students can chip away at their homework on the commute to and from school each day. In the survey, just over 3 percent of respondents said their school buses have Wi-Fi, but another 16 percent said they would consider it if it were E-rate eligible. Currently, a bill in Congress calls on the Federal Communications Commission, which oversees the E-rate program, to consider making school bus Wi-Fi E-rate eligible.

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