Cybersecurity

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

An administrator confirms student health check data on a laptop on the first day of the school year at Grant Elementary School, in Los Angeles
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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 Hassan (D-N.H.), Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.), and Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) sent a letter earlier this week to Education Secretary Miguel Cardona and Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas 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. 

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.

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 Biden 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.

Tags Alejandro Mayorkas Chris Van Hollen CISA cyberattacks DHS Education Department Jacky Rosen Joe Biden K-12 schools Kirsten Sinema Kyrsten Sinema Maggie Hassan Miguel Cardona

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