After having to put virtual lessons on hold due to a ransomware attack late last year, the Newhall School District was named Wednesday as one of the six districts from throughout the country to receive a grant, valued at $500,000, for cybersecurity improvement services through an IBM program.
District officials said the grants will sponsor IBM Service Corps teams to help each recipient in upgrading their computer systems, training staff and families on sound digital security strategies, and giving the Newhall administration a template for incident response should an attack occur such as the one in September of last year.
Ransomware attacks, according to Norton.com, involve an antagonistic software breaching a system and withholding data from the system’s administrators and users until a ransom is paid. Distance learning for the Newhall District was paused from Sept. 14 to Sept. 23, officials said at the time, and parents were temporarily asked to stay off the district’s technology until the threat was neutralized.
On Wednesday, Superintendent Jeff Pelzel declined to comment on how the district was able to get classes running again by Sept. 23, but said that the grant money will assist them in deterring future incursions.
“Obviously, after we went through the cybersecurity breach that we had last fall, (we had) to get a further kind of diagnosis around what the next steps are,” said Pelzel. “The cool thing is, then we can share that with our neighboring districts in the Santa Clarita Valley and say, ‘Hey, this is what they looked at.’ So, our IT manager can share with other districts, as well.”
The grants, made available to the six school districts (including the Newhall district) were possible through the IBM Education Security Preparedness Grant program. IBM hopes these funds, and cybersecurity assessments conducted by trained technology professionals for K-12 public school districts, will help the nearly 1,700 schools, colleges and universities in the U.S. that were impacted by ransomware attacks in 2020.
“(IT team) deployments will begin this summer and services will span developing incident response plans, providing basic cybersecurity training such as password hygiene, implementing strategic communication plans to use in response to a cyber incident and more,” IBM officials said in the grants’ announcement.
Pelzel said that cybersecurity is connected to the district providing sound safety measures that prevent a disruption to learning. He added that improving digital literacy — such as learning how to spot a phishing email or knowing how to set up your passwords and change them regularly — is important for students, staff and parents alike.
“It is going to help us educate our staff, our students and parents what to look for, not only at school, but also at home,” said Pelzel. “That’s a huge learning tool that becomes a lifelong learning skill around what you should be looking out for.”
“If it doesn’t look right, don’t click on it,” Pelzel added. “I think we’ve learned lessons and we’ve made some adjustments and I think this is kind of the next layer of support.”