Senate Democrats urge government to do more to protect K-12 schools against hackers

A group of Senate Democrats on Friday urged the federal government to do more to protect K-12 institutions and students against crippling cyberattacks, which have increasingly wreaked havoc across the nation during the past year. 

Sens. Maggie HassanMargaret (Maggie) HassanConservative group targeting Kelly, Hassan, Cortez Masto in multi-million-dollar ad blitz Biden signs four bills aimed at helping veterans Constant threats to government funding fail the American public MORE (D-N.H.), Kyrsten SinemaKyrsten SinemaBiden should seek some ideological diversity Budowsky: Why GOP donors flock to Manchin and Sinema Pence-linked group launches 0K ad campaign in West Virginia praising Manchin MORE (D-Ariz.), Jacky RosenJacklyn (Jacky) Sheryl RosenFirst openly transgender Miss USA contestant eliminated before round of 16 Senators call for Smithsonian Latino, women's museums to be built on National Mall America's clean energy future cannot stop at state lines MORE (D-Nev.), and Chris Van HollenChristopher (Chris) Van HollenReal relief from high gas prices Senators call for Smithsonian Latino, women's museums to be built on National Mall Schumer-McConnell dial down the debt ceiling drama MORE (D-Md.) sent a letter earlier this week to Education Secretary Miguel CardonaMiguel CardonaHillicon Valley — Immigrants being put in surveillance programs Senate Democrats urge government to do more to protect K-12 schools against hackers Democrats call on Education secretary to address 'stealthing' at federal level MORE and Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro MayorkasAlejandro MayorkasHillicon Valley —TSA to strengthen rail sector cybersecurity TSA issues directives to rail sector to strengthen cybersecurity US to restart 'Remain in Mexico' program following court order MORE detailing their concerns about student safety and privacy amid the spike in attacks.

“K-12 schools need additional support, as evidenced by the increasing number of successful cyberattacks on K-12 schools,” the senators wrote. 

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They pointed in particular to the need to implement recommendations outlined in a report released last month by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), which recommended that the Department of Education update its plan for protecting schools from cyber threats given the changing environment. 

The senators urged both the Education Department and Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which includes the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), to “go beyond” GAO’s recommendations and to establish a Government Coordinating Council and a Subsector Coordinating Council for the education sector. 

“These councils would help promote better coordination between federal, state, and local entities and private sector groups that support K-12 schools, and provide a cohesive foundation upon which the Department of Education and CISA can better support the cybersecurity of our country’s K-12 schools,” the senators wrote. 

A spokesperson for DHS declined to comment on the letter, and the Education Department did not immediately respond to The Hill’s request for comment. 

The letter was sent as attacks against K-12 schools continue to pile up and disrupt learning. Attacks were particularly prevalent during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, when many classes moved online.

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The K-12 Cybersecurity Resource Center released a report earlier this year that found K-12 institutions in the U.S. experienced a “record-breaking” number of cyberattacks in 2020, with districts in Miami-Dade County, Fla.; Baltimore County, Md.; and Fairfax County, Va. among those targeted. 

Action has already been taken to protect K-12 institutions from hackers. 

President BidenJoe BidenManchin to vote to nix Biden's vaccine mandate for larger businesses Congress averts shutdown after vaccine mandate fight Senate cuts deal to clear government funding bill MORE last month signed into law legislation requiring CISA to create cybersecurity resources and tools for K-12 schools to help defend themselves against cyberattacks, with Rosen among the bipartisan sponsors of the bill. Further, the infrastructure package set to be signed into law by Biden next week includes $1 billion in state and local cybersecurity funding that could be used to shore up school cybersecurity.  

Even with these steps being taken, the senators asked for still more action as attacks continue, including asking that the agencies brief their staff prior to Dec. 17. 

“We look forward to working with the Department of Education, DHS, and the administration to support our schools and improve our nation’s cybersecurity,” they wrote.