IT Infrastructure

Stopping Cyberattacks Is Top Priority for Ed-Tech Leaders. But Many Underestimate the Risk

By Alyson Klein — April 26, 2022 4 min read
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Cybersecurity remains the top priority for K-12 technology leaders, even though many continue to underestimate the risk attackers pose to their districts, concludes a survey by the Consortium for School Networking.

Despite increases in the severity of attacks, most ed-tech leaders rate common threats as just low or medium risk, according to the annual survey by CoSN, which represents school district IT officials.

What’s more, most districts don’t have the resources in place to dedicate a specific staff member to securing their networks. And that problem could worsen, given new stresses on district IT staff spurred by the pandemic, and a possible uptick in retirements of school district technology staff members, the report notes.

“As cyberattacks become more sophisticated, greater expertise is needed to combat them, and the demand for those skills increases,” the report says. But it points out that school districts aren’t likely to be able to offer the higher salaries that would attract IT workers with cybersecurity expertise.

In fact, just one in five school districts—21 percent—have a staff member dedicated to cybersecurity, according to the survey. Another 21 percent of districts outsource management of network security to private providers or public entities, a percentage that’s likely to grow, the report concluded.

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Only half of districts surveyed said they require cybersecurity training for teachers and all other staff. And nearly a third say they don’t have training requirements for any staff members—a finding that the report called “alarming,” given attackers’ tendency to “understand human behavior.”

If employees aren’t trained to spot potential problems, they might miss clear signs of a potential phishing attempt, such as a typo or irregularity in the address line of an email purporting to be from a district superintendent.

A slight majority of school districts—62 percent—reported they’ve purchased cybersecurity insurance, the survey found. But, interestingly, about one in six school district tech leaders said they didn’t know whether their district had such insurance.

That’s potentially problematic because many policies require districts to have certain safeguards in place—such as multifactor authentication for logins and training for staff members—to purchase the coverage or access it in the event of an attack. If the insurance runs through another department—such as the finance office—it could be tough for tech leaders to make sure the district is following through on the technological aspects of those agreements.

Meanwhile, staffing levels for district IT departments, always a challenge, are under new strains. District tech leaders across the country have been asked to take on more work as school systems have purchased more devices and are using technology more extensively in teaching and learning than ever before.

More than half of the survey respondents— 52 percent—said that they lack adequate staffing to help teachers make the most out of the increasing availability of digital learning devices in the classroom. And a similar percentage—51 percent—said they don’t have enough staff to provide support to students and families using the devices at home.

These pressures could soon be compounded as the tech leader workforce—mostly professionals who are ages 40 to 60—eyeing retirement, the report notes.

Fifty-three percent of teachers are planning to retire earlier than they anticipated because of the stress brought on by the pandemic, according to a recent survey by the National Education Association, stoking fears about massive numbers of unfilled positions in some districts. A similar tidal wave of retirements appears less likely among K-12 tech leaders, but there may still be staffing challenges on the horizon, the CoSN report says.

Twelve percent of tech leaders surveyed said they were planning to retire earlier than they initially planned, as a direct result of the pandemic. Another 3 percent said they were delaying retirement, also because of the pandemic. But the vast majority—85 percent —report that their retirement plans remain unchanged.

More worrisome: More than half of respondents said they plan to retire sometime in the next ten years, though the actual target dates vary significantly. One in five respondents expect to retire in three to five years, while another 23 percent are shooting for within six to ten years. Just 11 percent expect to retire sometime in the next two years.

In general, the timing of these planned retirements was closely linked to the respondents’ age, with older tech leaders expecting to retire sooner. One surprising finding: Nearly one in ten tech leaders who are ages 40-49 plan to retire in the next five years.

The survey—which generated more than 1,500 responses—was administered from Jan. 11 to Feb. 28 of this year.

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