When a ransomware attack hit Oberlin City Schools in 2016, IT Coordinator Steve Nielsen thought the district was ready. Its cybersecurity vendor had assured him that the Ohio district’s cloud backups were stored in the United States. However, when Nielsen went to recover the affected systems, he found that the backups had actually been moved to China.
The problem? The state’s education department wouldn’t allow school networks to connect to that region due to its high number of cyberthreats. Although Oberlin’s systems were backed up, the district couldn’t retrieve its data.
For Nielsen, the incident brought to mind his father-in-law’s advice about motorcycles. “He told me that there are two types of bikers: those who have fallen off the bike and those who will fall off the bike,” Nielsen says. “That’s the approach people should take with cybersecurity. If you haven’t had an incident yet, then it’s just a matter of time. You need to take every avenue to harden your systems and make sure that you’re able to recover.”
The rise in ransomware attacks and the threat of natural disasters have spurred districts such as Oberlin to level up their backup and disaster recovery activities in recent years. Often, it’s an adverse event that motivates the change. By implementing the right tools and practices, districts can transform a serious outage into a relatively minor incident.
“The K–12 sector is a high-value target for ransomware attacks,” says Amy McLaughlin, cybersecurity project director at the Consortium for School Networking. “If something happens, a district will struggle with everything from basic operations to the door locks and the clocks on the wall. That’s how important technology has become to school districts today. Without a solid backup solution, all of those systems are at risk.”