Briefly Stated: March 16, 2022

March 15, 2022 7 min read
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Cybercriminals Still Outpacing Schools in Computer Safety

First, the not-as-bad news: Documented cyberattacks in the K-12 system fell by more than half last year. Now, the really bad news: Publicly reported ransomware attacks against schools and districts increased.

Ransomware attacks rose from 50 in 2020 to 62 in 2021, while cyberattacks in general declined for the first time in three years, from 408 in 2020 to 166 in 2021, says a report released last week from the K12 Security Information Exchange, or K12 Six.

Unfortunately, what’s on the upswing—the ransomware attacks—and now make up the largest category of attacks, can run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars for districts to get their data back.

What’s more, ransomware attacks are increasingly coming from sophisticated cybercriminals who often work overseas in countries that are tough for U.S. law enforcement to reach, said Doug Levin, the national director of K12 SIX and one of the top school cybersecurity experts in the country.

Even if districts—or their insurance companies—don’t pay a ransom, the cost of getting computer systems back in order can be “staggering,” the report says. For instance, the Baltimore County school system spent almost $9.7 million responding to a late 2020 ransomware attack.

Meanwhile, the seemingly dramatic drop in the number of cyberattacks overall from 2020 to 2021 might seem like great news, but the outlook is much cloudier when you consider the broader context, the report says.

To begin with, the number of cyberattacks may have been inflated during 2020, because of widespread virtual schooling across the country. Districts gave out millions of devices for students to use at home, on unfamiliar networks. Going back to in-person learning might have made it easier for districts to guard against attacks.

It’s also far from clear that the number of attacks has actually fallen as much as the data seem to indicate. That’s because K-12 Six is only able to count attacks that have been publicly reported.

In fact, some districts have worked hard to avoid publicly disclosing attacks, the report says. Case-in-point: Florida’s Broward County district waited five months to report key information to people whose data were affected.

For Lead-Exposed Students, Early Intervention Can Reduce Academic, Neurological Harm

Children exposed to even low levels of lead can face academic and neurological problems in school. New research suggests early interventions can help a lot—but children whose problems don’t develop immediately often lose out on critical support.

Research published last week in the journal JAMA Pediatrics finds children exposed to lead before age 3 who also received early-intervention services were 16 percent more likely to perform on grade level in English/language arts and 14 percent more likely to perform on grade level in math in 3rd grade, compared with lead-exposed children who did not have early interventions.

Although the findings show promise, the problem is that interventions often begin later than that. “Low levels of lead exposure result in executive-functioning deficits and learning challenges that often present in school-age children after the critical window of [early intervention] opportunity has passed,” write some of the study’s authors in a separate article.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends children have blood-lead levels of no more than 1 part per billion or ppb, but “all the studies that are out now suggest there is no safe level of lead,” said Jeanette Stingone, a co-author and an assistant professor of epidemiology at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health. “At any point that you measure, you see some detriment [from exposure], but obviously, ... under age 3 is a time where our brain is rapidly developing.”

Researchers analyzed data on more than 11,000 New York City children who had blood-lead levels of at least 4 ppb before age 3. They compared the academic progress of more than 2,700 of those children who received early-intervention services for lead exposure against that of a matched group of more than 8,100 led-exposed children who did not get services.

Early-intervention services included occupational, physical, and speech therapies as well as special instruction, but the study did not dig into whether any one or a combination of those services was more effective for lead-exposed toddlers.

The study found many more students were exposed to damaging levels of lead than get support to help them overcome neurological or cognitive problems that result. For example, delays tend to be spotted sooner in boys who are then referred for services.

Indigenous-Language Teachers to Receive Equal Pay in New Mexico

Many perform the same work as teachers—lesson planning, curriculum development, running a classroom—but get paid a pittance of what teachers earn. That’s about to change in New Mexico, which will begin to offer equal pay to dozens of Indigenous language teachers as part of a new law aimed at improving K-12 education for Native American students and preserving their languages and cultures.

A bill signed into law this month counts educators who are certified in the Indigenous languages taught in public schools and spoken by New Mexico’s 23 tribes and pueblos as entry-level teachers eligible for the state’s minimum salaries.

The state recently raised the minimum teacher salary to $50,000 for a nine-month contract, up from $40,000. Together, the new measures will ensure that some 155 Indigenous language-certificate holders will be paid at least that much if they have a teaching contract. Paid as “teaching assistants,” some had been earning as little as $14,000.

“The teachers who carry on this integral piece of the culture and history of so many in our state deserve to be paid as the educational professionals they are,” said Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.

The bill signing comes as Lujan Grisham’s administration fights a decade-old lawsuit brought by parents of underserved students, including Native Americans.

Around 11 percent of New Mexico students are Native American. Public and tribal schools in New Mexico teach eight native languages, with language teachers certified through a process run by tribal authorities.

Those certificate holders are qualified to teach in K-12 schools but haven’t been eligible for minimum-salary protections enjoyed by traditional teachers who complete a four-year university degree in subjects like English or Spanish. Universities don’t offer degree programs for most tribal languages.

Native American leaders welcome the new law but say the governor has more work to do. “I can appreciate her signing the bill, but I wish that the administration would be much more of a contributor,” said Rep. Derrick Lente, who sponsored the legislation.

Fla. to Urge No Vaccination for ‘Healthy Children’

From a state whose governor berated schoolchildren for wearing masks now comes an announcement that its top doctor will recommend that “healthy children” not get vaccinated against COVID-19—the first state to do so, he pointed out proudly.

Florida Surgeon General Dr. Joseph Ladapo made the announcement last week at a roundtable event organized by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis that featured a group of doctors critical of coronavirus lockdowns and mandate policies.

The new guidance would run counter to recommendations by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that all children ages 5 to 7 should be vaccinated. Although children are generally less likely than adults to become severely ill with COVID, public-health experts have underlined that vaccines further reduce their risk and help prevent them from infecting others.

The move was Florida’s latest break from White House policy. The Food and Drug Administration cleared the use of Pfizer’s vaccine in children as young as 5 based on a study showing the child-size doses were 91 percent effective at preventing symptomatic COVID-19.

“I’m really concerned that this is going to make parents question what they are hearing from every other source—pediatricians, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the CDC,’’ said Dr. Sonja Rasmussen, a University of Florida professor, pediatrician, and a former infectious-disease specialist at the CDC.

Children with underlying health conditions including obesity and diabetes face higher than usual risks for severe complications and hospitalization. Of the nearly 1,000 U.S. children who have died from COVID-19, Rasmussen said not all had an underlying illness.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said it was “deeply disturbing that there are politicians peddling conspiracy theories out there and casting doubt on vaccinations when it is our best tool against the virus.”

The Associated Press, Wire Service; Alyson Klein, Assistant Editor; and Sarah D. Sparks, Assistant Editor contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the March 16, 2022 edition of Education Week as Briefly Stated


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