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  • Timothy Lord

K-12: Adjusting to the New Normal Educational System

More than five months have passed since the novel coronavirus COVID-19 has devastated the whole world.

During the start of the year, the entire planet was warned of how serious this new coronavirus will be. When the full impact of the pandemic became apparent, businesses and schools were forced to take immediate action. Physical access to various establishments, including educational institutions were restricted to mitigate the spread of the virus. All governments had to make sure that all possible emergency measures are implemented stringently to protect the citizens.

The impacts of COVID-19 can be felt wherever you are. All sectors, including education, are adjusting to the new normal and are reconsidering their approach in light of the emerging opportunities and more so of the new challenges they will be facing. The four elements of curriculum – goal, approach, evaluation, and content – are being discussed by the key players of the education sector as we are all still surviving this continuing crisis.

This pandemic has caused the longest disruption to the idea of normalcy in America and the rest of the world. Today, numerous schools and educational institutions, especially those offering K-12, have closed. State leaders and educators from every level are looking at how best to approach the new normal to ensure continuity of education and support services to all students and communities. It cannot be emphasized enough that it is extremely important to look to one another for answers and inspirations in these trying times.

Nowadays, state leaders and school staffers are tasked to work together beyond the parameters of their departments and organizations to ensure that every student, family, teacher, and administrator receives the support they badly need in these uncertain times.

Adjusting to the new normal

The COVID-19 pandemic that hit 2020 has forced most schools in the United States and other parts of the world to change the way they deliver lessons to K-12 students.

Since the beginning of March 2020, schools across the world have closed as governments increased their efforts to flatten the curve. This meant a rapid and unexpected transformation of working practices for educators. With less than a week’s notice, everyone involved in the education sector was expected to deliver and perform their duties remotely and still maintain their relationships with peers and students. This has led to a decline in a lot of the teaching staff’s wellbeing. Because of this, schools have turned to technology to address the new challenges brought about by the new normal.

In line with this, schools are using software applications to help them plan, deliver, and mark their lessons and deliver them to K-12 students as efficiently and as effectively as possible. All while trying to inject some form of normalcy into a situation that’s quite far from the normal that we’ve all been used to.

Turning to technology to address new challenges in the education sector

One of the most appropriate solutions to the challenges that the education sector is facing during this pandemic is digital education. Thanks to the advancements in technology, learning methods are changing nowadays.

While digital technology for education was first shrugged off by a lot of people as something they don’t really need, it is about to become the “new normal” in every student’s and teacher’s life in the wake of this global pandemic, whether they like it or not.

Because close physical contact is put on hold for an indefinite period, schools and learning institutions must leverage technology to continue to provide education to everyone. This will result in the world going digital as a necessary course of action to survive this pandemic. Aside from that, K-12 students will be spending more or virtually all of their time on screen with software applications individualized for each of them.

New York Governor Andrew M. Cuomo signed an agreement with billionaire Bill Gates to reimagine public education in the state with the use of technology. With the new normal, there will be a hybrid learning environment wherein there is a blend of real-life and online education. This means that K-12 students will be able to learn at home, school, community, and beyond. This has gotten key players, like education ministers, technology consultants, banks, and not-for-profit organizations to reimagine a better future for public schools once this pandemic has ended. This means that everyone involved will need to make sure that blended learning will be available anytime, anywhere through digital technology.

Over the years and after billions of dollars have been initially invested in digital technology for schools, there is little evidence that will strongly suggest that it has improved children’s learning. Former assistant secretary of education and public education advocate, Diane Ravitch, said in her book “Slaying Goliath” that there is no supporting evidence to prove the claim that online learning can result in superior student performance.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) expressed their caution about the real benefits of digital technology for education. Their research found that “computers do not improve pupil results.” OECD’s education chief, Andreas Schleicher, said “education systems need to pay close attention that technology will not further amplify existing inequalities in access and quality of learning.”

Schleicher added, “This is not just a matter of providing access to technology and open learning resources.” He added, “It will also require maintaining effective social relationships between families, teachers, and students – particularly for those students who lack the resilience, learning strategies, or engagement to learn on their own.”

OECD also advises that any strategy that involves digital technology for schools must consider the potential risks, such as distractions while students are learning online. It is also important to encourage students to have a balanced life between online learning and screen-free activities.

It has been reported that even before schools were shut to keep students and teaching staff safe from the virus, excess screen time has already caused an increase in the cases of teenage anxiety beginning around 2012 when the use of smartphones among adolescents has become prevalent. This has led to digital addiction among young children, distracting them from engaging in outdoor activities and face-to-face interactions with peers. Since this pandemic has broken out, children below 11 years old have been spending more time on screen.

While digital learning at home has become an invaluable solution to provide continuity to students’ education, children, parents, and teachers have been experiencing a lot of problems with this new setup. Some kids are not able to concentrate while learning online. There are those who have gadgets or devices breaking down. Some families have only one device for several kids. Other parents are complaining about their children walking off or hiding in the middle of a Zoom class. Also, there are those who find the instructions given to them by teachers to be insufficient or incomplete, preventing them from helping their children maximize their online learning time.

On top of all those problems, mental health risk on teenagers is one of the biggest problems that online education or distance learning can cause. Teenagers need to go to school to be with their peers to learn valuable life lessons on racism and prejudice, develop their identity, to have face-to-face interactions with others, and more. This is why parents and teachers believe that online classes may not be for everyone.

Cybersecurity threats to K-12 students

Even before this global health crisis has affected millions of lives around the world, cybersecurity threats have become prevalent. However, with more students spending more time online, more and more children will be exposed to different risks on the web.

Since 2016, there have been 712 disclosed cybersecurity-related incidents involving public schools in the US alone, according to the K-12 Cyber Incident Map.

In 2018, there had been 122 cases that affected 119 public K-12 schools. This means that one new incident is reported every three days. Tech experts believe that there are actually more incidents that happened in the previous years, only that some were not reported. What’s even more alarming about this statistic is that online crimes involving public schools did not happen by chance, but that they were specifically targeted by these criminals.

Some of the most common threats in online learning include the following:

PHISHING

This is a tactic cybercriminals use to trick people into disclosing personal information online, including passwords, PIN codes, and social security numbers, among others. This also involves secretly installing malicious software that will damage your system unit.

Some of these phishing activities are done by cyber actors that pretend to be government officials, bank employees, or others asking for people’s bank account information and other confidential details to swindle money from unsuspecting victims. Experts believe that school staffers can be vulnerable to phishing because they are generally trusting. They usually want to be responsive and to help people.

RANSOMWARE ATTACKS

Rockford Public Schools’ technology department experienced its worst IT nightmare in September of last year. It was such a devastating ransomware attack that has spread across its data center and has encrypted their servers.

In Illinois, IT staff are to receive text messages when a server is disconnected from their network. One Thursday night, the IT team received a barrage of messages, reporting that about 85 out of 300 virtual servers were shut down simultaneously.

Fortunately, the IT department was able to back up their data, which means that the district didn’t have to pay a ransom to the culprits to regain access to their servers. However, it took several months for them to fully recover all those data.

Those were just a few of the many reported incidents of ransomware attacks involving public schools. As you can see, this kind of cyberattack can be crippling, regardless of whether it’s a school district or small business.

According to reports, K-12 cybersecurity breaches include student data, as well as those of school staff, including payroll and other records. Stolen data can be fraudulently used to file false tax returns using the names of the students and faculty. If the IT staffers weren’t able to back up their files, they would have been scammed out of millions of dollars by the criminals behind these cybercrimes.

Director of technology services at the Region 16 Education Service Center Greg Stockstill said that the younger the student is, the more their information will be worth on the web. He added, “It could be 12 years of someone using that identity before anyone knows that it was stolen.”

District leaders have become more aware of the possibility of being a victim of these cybercrimes. However, due to several factors, it can be a challenge for decision-makers to be as prepared and as engaged as they’d like to be. For one, financial constraint isalways a limitation. Add to that the fact that IT problems will cost districts a lot of money but with little ROI. Many decision-makers believe that better security does not necessarily mean better test scores.

IT security tools can also be quite expensive, not to mention, complicated to use. It can be very difficult for the average school to make detecting, identifying, and responding to cyber threats in a timely manner.

K-12 IT staffers are now managing hundreds of operating systems, as well as apps and devices, making things more difficult. Aside from that, not only schools are equipped to have enough bandwidth to protect them from any cybersecurity incident. While school districts may have IT experts to manage servers and other tech functions, they may not have the right tools or knowledge to fix cyber-attacks in a timely manner. This is why it’s extremely important for IT leaders in school districts to take all the necessary steps to be as prepared as can be. This includes hiring a cybersecurity specialist.

What schools can do to protect themselves from a cybersecurity breach

When a security breach does take place, it’s important for schools to focus on containing the incident first to prevent the problem from spreading to other connected devices or systems. Isolation of affected systems must be the first and foremost course of action to take.

To prevent such incidents from happening or causing exponential damage in the future, one of the first steps to take is to decentralize the control of data and connected devices. Cybersecurity experts recommend segmenting infrastructure to enhance protection on inbound and outbound communication. Schools need to segregate systems based on users and policies. This also includes restricting connections only to known devices and systems for security purposes.

It’s also important for K-12 schools to take into account the different methods to monitor and analyze network traffic to be able to alert the appropriate department when fraudulent activities are detected. By putting a proper database security program in place, securing critical data can be easier.

Recovering lost data can be time-consuming and more importantly, costly. When 42 Rockford school districts were attacked, they had to make do without internet for weeks. Bus drivers had to make paper copies of their routes while teachers had to record attendance on paper. The schools were only able to restore critical applications and student information when they hired the help of a vendor that allowed them to store their data temporarily in the cloud. After two long weeks, their IT staff was able to fully recover the district’s internet access, allowing students to use tablets and Chromebooks again. Thankfully, too, the kind of ransomware that attacked them only infected certain operating systems.

IT leaders recommend that new security technology must be used to get the highest protection from future cybersecurity threats. One good example is SolarWind’s Security Event Manager, a tool specifically made for security information and event management that aggregates logs and identifies threats. There’s also Microsoft Advanced Threat Analytics, which scans and analyzes the network and notifies IT staff in case of any suspicious activity in the servers.

Another important method to mitigate risks is to ensure all students, teachers, and staff members are fully trained and onboard to promote awareness of potential cyber threats. Trainings should include teaching students and teachers about password management best practices.

To be able to carry out all security measures effectively, schools must request an evaluation of security solutions. They should seek advice from the experts on protecting critical data with next-generation solutions. Cybersecurity specialists will also be able to advise on increasing visibility into security posture.

Introducing new technologies in the education sector may help provide continuity to learning, but it has also opened up schools to new vulnerabilities. In fact, many school districts faced a lot of phishing scams while conducting distance learning. What’s worse is that these types of cyber threats can lurk inside schools for years. It would be important to take a closer look at the security of their systems even when this pandemic is over.

Since not knowing exactly what you are looking for can be like finding a needle in a haystack, it would beneficial for school districts to partner with a tech company that offers and implements cybersecurity solutions. Cybersecurity experts will also be able to probe for vulnerabilities to ensure that all existing and future solutions will stop potential problems even before they start.

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