Mar 15 2023

E-Rate Funds Can Boost K–12 Cybersecurity

Sophos helps schools apply funding to certain cybersecurity solutions, from firewalls to support services.

Schools can’t use E-rate funding for strictly cyber tools when it comes to cybersecurity, and ed tech advocates like the Consortium for School Networking have been lobbying to change that.

The federal funds are intended to help schools “obtain affordable broadband,” according to the Federal Communications Commission, the organization responsible for distributing E-rate funding. However, most districts now have broadband, especially following pandemic changes to get students online. As a result, there’s a push to expand E-rate to include more cybersecurity solutions.

In the meantime, the cyber components of certain network upgrades are covered by E-rate. This gives schools a unique window of opportunity to ramp up their digital defenses and better protect student privacy.

How Can Schools Fund Cybersecurity Upgrades with E-Rate?

“E-rate category two includes all the internal connections needed for broadband connectivity within schools and libraries. It also includes network infrastructure, which is where firewall services come in,” says Rob Lalumondier, vice president of federal sales at Sophos.

There’s cybersecurity embedded in all of that, and the government will help pay for it.

EXPLORE: Learn more about cybersecurity solutions from Sophos with CDW•G.

“From both a products and services perspective, firewall hardware and virtual firewall products are E-rate eligible, along with technical support packages that allow schools to get quick support,” Lalumondier says.

For example, key components of the Sophos Firewall Operating System are eligible for category two E-rate discounts, including basic firewall features, SD-RED (remote ethernet devices) to meet SD-WAN networking goals, wireless access points, switches for secure and scalable LAN connectivity, and support services.

“In some cases, we can provide professional services that will ensure that those products are properly configured with the right features and functionality turned on and activated, so that you don’t have any gaps in your security,” he says.

How Do These Cyber Solutions Protect K–12 Schools?

By leveraging E-Rate funding, schools can strengthen their networks against potential outside incursions.

“Cybersecurity increasingly is taking on a broader and broader definition,” Lalumondier says. “Today, it’s about protecting the entire attack surface, using firewalls combined with access points and switches to help segment off that network traffic and then limit the overall attack surface.”

Click the banner to discover cybersecurity services your district can invest in with ESSER funds.

Student data is a valuable target for cybercriminals, but upgrading these areas of a school’s cybersecurity posture “can help prevent cyber intrusions that disrupt your network uptime and interrupt the delivery of education curriculum to students,” he adds.

At the same time, the cyber protections inherent in a firewall can help to protect more than just networks and data. Schools can leverage certain firewall features to keep students themselves safe.

Context-aware keyword filtering, for example, can identify problematic keywords to help schools identify online bullying and other early indications of harm. And powerful web-filtering policies built into firewalls can help K–12 leaders manage what content students and staff can access online.

This also has cybersecurity implications, since the websites that contain inappropriate content “are often associated with malware,” Lalumondier says. “Clicking on the wrong link without the protection of a firewall can open your network to hackers.”

LEARN MORE: Teach K–12 staff to detect social engineering attacks.

How Do Schools Apply E-Rate to These Security Features?

There are two ways schools can use E-rate money for network upgrades. The first is to apply for the funding and wait for the Universal Service Administrative Co. to come through with the money. There’s inherent delay in this strategy.

Alternately, they can fast-track the process.

“Schools that have an urgent need can fill out Form 472, also known as the Billed Entity Applicant Reimbursement Form. This allows schools to self-fund the equipment, then seek reimbursement from USAC once that form is approved,” Lalumondier says.

When one of the goals of an upgrade is strengthening cybersecurity, the faster option may be strategically more sensible.

“Cybersecurity moves fast. To be secure, you need to make sure you’re always working on the latest networking equipment,” Lalumondier says. “Rather than waiting for the process to catch up with you, it often makes sense for a school to go out and make the purchase, then seek the reimbursement on the back end. We often encourage schools to fill out Form 472 for just that reason.”

KEEP READING: Get answers to commonly asked E-rate questions.

Brought to you by:

matejmo/Getty Images

Learn from Your Peers

What can you glean about security from other IT pros? Check out new CDW research and insight from our experts.