Federal Briefly Stated

Briefly Stated: Stories You May Have Missed (Sept. 16, 2019)

September 15, 2019 8 min read

Pay Up or Else: Districts Being Held Hostage By Malware Demands

Back to school. Those words conjure up so many things. Buying new clothes and school supplies. Packing lunches every morning. Greeting new teachers. Remembering what name goes with what student.

And facing ransom demands for hijacked computer systems.

In recent weeks, at least three school systems have found themselves in that predicament.

The Flagstaff district in Arizona fell victim to a cybersecurity attack so disruptive it forced schools to close a couple of days this month.

The ransomware, a form of malware that typically requests payment in exchange for access to locked computers, was detected when a message popped up, asking for payment.

The district wouldn’t consider making a ransomware payment, said technology director Mary Knight. Instead, it checked systems that control doors, bells, transportation, food service, and more.

Public schools in Rockford, Ill., were operating last week without internet, telephone, or computer systems that track student attendance because of a ransomware attack. School officials said experts were helping the district’s technology team evaluate the outage.

A Connecticut district, meanwhile, has been struck twice. Teachers last week were working without computer access less than a week after a second malware attack targeted the Wolcott district’s servers.

The district was the victim of a three-month ransomware attack this summer that blocked all five schools from accessing internal files.

The district has hired a cybersecurity firm to help with recovery.

Federal Officials Take Aim at Vaping As Illness and Death Count Climbs

There is growing urgency among public-health officials as the sickness and death count rises from a mysterious respiratory illness tied to vaping.

The Food and Drug Administration took the step last week to ban sales of flavored vaping products until they gain agency approval. Tobacco-flavored products can remain on store shelves, but they must be approved by the FDA by next May.

“We can’t allow people to get sick and we can’t allow our youth to be so affected,” President Donald Trump said in announcing the heightened enforcement policy.

That announcement followed on the heels of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advising people to refrain from using e-cigarettes. The warning comes as the respiratory illnesses have sickened more than 400 people in 33 states, killing six.

Most of the sickened patients have been teenagers, who are vaping at increasing rates. The upward trend has bedeviled schools, as teachers and administrators scramble to stop students from engaging in a habit that has unknown health consequences and is easy to hide from authority figures.

School leaders have been taking a variety of approaches to combat vaping among students, from suspensions to counseling.

But many teenagers remain unaware of the hazards: 66 percent believe their e-cigarettes contain just flavoring, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

One district has gone so far as to engage a law firm to sue the makers, distributors, and sellers of electronic cigarettes and vaping products.

Goddard school board President Kevin McWhorter said the Kansas district has a responsibility to protect students from a “growing crisis.” McWhorter said the hope is that other schools and jurisdictions will file similar litigation targeting the e-cigarette and vaping industry.

High Schools Teaching Computer Science

chart brief

In the last 12 months, 33 states have adopted a total of 57 policies to support computer science education. Despite all that activity, across 39 states, only 45 percent of high schools teach computer science. Students from poor families and those in rural areas are even less likely to have access to such courses.

SOURCES: Code.org, Computer Science Teachers Association, Expanding Computing Education Pathways Alliance

Education Department Can’t Seem to Forgive Teachers and Others Their College Loans

Let’s not say the U.S. Department of Education is chintzy. Let’s just say it operates in rarefied air.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office, the agency that watches over federal tax dollars, found that the Education Department denied the claims of 99 percent—yes, all but 1 percent—of public servants who applied for a college-loan-forgiveness program. And it awarded $27 million, even though Congress had appropriated $700 million for the program.

These are the people, like teachers and nurses, who often work under less-than-ideal conditions and for pay that isn’t commensurate with their educational level. The goal of the program is to erase their student debt after borrowers make 120 monthly payments toward their loan.

This marks the second stab Congress has taken to get these workers some relief. The program was first established in 2007; the department began reviewing applications in 2017. It has been criticized for its overly complicated and poorly communicated requirements. The department had approved so few applications that lawmakers stepped in last year to create a temporary expanded program, in hopes of breaking down barriers for borrowers who were deemed ineligible.

That hasn’t worked, either. “You don’t want borrowers to be confused about the eligibility criteria and to face a high denial rate. And yet, that’s what we found,” Melissa Emrey-Arras, who led the GAO’s review, told NPR.

Here’s one example. The department required borrowers who were applying for loan forgiveness under the temporary program to submit a separate application for the initial program—even though they were ineligible for that first program.

A Education Department spokeswoman told NPR that it has “taken steps to help borrowers.”

Ex-Teacher Prepares Counterparts to Survive Shootings

The threat of school shootings has been a fact of life for Julie Johnson her entire teaching career.

The shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999 occurred during her first year of teaching. “After class, I was just watching this all unfold,” Johnson said. “The horror struck me—'What would I do?’ ”

Turns out, what she would do years later, after training and many more school shootings, was quit her teaching job in Bay County, Fla., to dedicated herself to educating other teachers on how to defend themselves and their classrooms.

Partnering with another local teacher, Scott Woodyard, and longtime martial arts instructor Carlos Cummings, Johnson recently opened Teachers Not Targets in Panama City Beach— dedicated to increasing the survival rate of educators during the era of mass school shootings. With the help of a consulting board that includes former police and firefighters, the business offers services from regular self-defense and trauma-treatment training to school risk assessments and classroom-protection plans.

“When stuff goes down at a school, law enforcement isn’t there yet, so then what do you do?” said Cummings

Johnson took many courses over the years on how to protect classrooms and schools against potential shooters, then later started ongoing martial arts training.

A turning point came in 2017 when one of her students threatened to shoot up the classroom. Although he was intercepted by the school resource officer, “it dawned on me that the threat could start inside my own classroom.”

One of Johnson’s goals is to provide teachers ongoing training once a week. “It might be five or six years later when you need it, and you don’t want to be rusty,” she said.

She also wants to provide schools with more than just generalized plans for a shooting incident. “What we plan to do is go room by room and meet with teachers individually and make a plan . . . how to weaponize items in the classroom.”

Mr. President, Don’t Abandon School Projects to Build Wall

The wall or school construction projects? Better the projects.

That’s the message from the latest group to contest President Donald Trump’s plan to build a wall between the U.S. and Mexican borders.

To do so, he wants to divert $3.6 billion in military funding that was meant to pay for building projects for schools and day-care centers that serve military families in the United States and overseas.

Education advocacy groups pushed back on that plan last week as congressional Democrats searched for ways to stop it.

The Network for Public Education, an advocacy group that opposes the administration on many education issues, encouraged followers to write to Congress to attempt to halt the plan. And the Schott Foundation for Public Education, which presses for school funding and equity, said the funding shift could hurt the military’s school system, which showcases “the promise of wraparound supports, socioeconomic and racial integration.”

“This diversion, a result of President Trump using ‘national emergency’ powers, means that the federal government is cutting funding to a school system that educates the children of men and women serving in the military and is one of the highest-performing, most equitable school systems in the United States,” the foundation said in a blog post.

The Pentagon recently released a list of 27 building projects that would be delayed by the funds transfer. They include a middle school in Fort Campbell, Ky., a day-care center at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland, a new military school in Puerto Rico, and five other school projects in Japan and Germany.

In a briefing this month, a Department of Defense official told reporters the funding would be pulled in two $1.8 billion installments, the first affecting projects outside the United States. None of the funds will be pulled from planned housing or dormitory projects, he said.

That official told reporters it would be up to Congress to backfill the diverted funds to put the original projects, including the schools, back on track. But Democrats were resistant.

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Briefly Stated Contributors: Associated Press, Evie Blad, Alyson Klein, Arianna Prothero, and Madeline Will. Edited by Karen Diegmueller.
A version of this article appeared in the September 18, 2019 edition of Education Week as Briefly Stated: Stories You May Have Missed

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