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School IT teams must remain extra vigilant as they monitor for security threats in the new school year

How to strengthen school IT for continued hybrid learning

School IT teams must remain extra vigilant as they monitor for security threats in the new school year

With school out and summer break here, administrators are planning for the fall – but much still remains up in the air. Despite rising vaccinations, it seems inevitable that just like hybrid enterprises, hybrid schooling will continue to be the new normal. So how can district IT teams continue to handle the infrastructure impact that hybrid environments create?

In 2020, COVID-19 forced much of the K-12 world to adapt to a remote-first learning environment. With the nation re-opening amid rising vaccinations, hybrid models for workplaces are now becoming the new norm. Looking forward to back-to-school season, it is quite likely that we will see the same option continue for students for the foreseeable future.

These virtual models, though, have directly impacted school IT infrastructure in unanticipated ways. To ensure operational longevity and prevent any child from falling behind, it’s never been more critical for schools to reevaluate their IT infrastructure.

District IT departments will continue to face a number of network challenges with long term virtual options, but there are solutions they can adopt to remain widely accessible for online learning – from virtual training and disaster recovery to local edge infrastructure.

Addressing the issue: Dispersed teams, widespread cyber threats

IT teams have had to completely rethink the way they are managing, maintaining, and storing data, especially in educational environments. Before learning took a virtual shift, school IT teams did not need to worry about managing data across wide geographic areas since all the teachers and students were in one place utilizing the same networks.

When COVID hit, IT teams faced a unique challenge as staff and students alike became dispersed across at-home networks, with limited training on how to adapt.

Connecting to school networks remotely created consistent cause for cyber concern during the 2020 school year. With devices connecting in from a slew of networks, IT staff had to ensure that data remained protected from a potential security breach, which could result from both software inefficiencies and human error. This meant having tools and systems–including VPNs and multi-factor authentication–in place for individuals to use from the start. These options will continue to be imperative as students continue to connect digitally in the school year to come.

Leaning into local edge capabilities

For many school districts, network demand that resulted from remote learning was a shock to the system. The added strain of hundreds of devices all accessing a network at the same time caused problems with throughput and speed. This strain created serious issues for schools across the country, deepening the digital divide as student access to high-quality internet connections varied greatly from county to county. 

To combat this in the 2021-2022 school year, schools should consider taking a more localized approach to their data management. Bringing data to the edge can ensure always-on accessibility marked by low latency. This approach enables faster connectivity options as data has to travel shorter distances to users.

Using local edge computing options can give schools a tiered architecture that will cut the distance data travels to student devices, ultimately resulting in a boost to user connectivity and bandwidth. The added strength that comes with this boost in connectivity will help ensure students avoid missing classes and assignments while always getting access to the virtual information and support they need, regardless of their location.

Keeping staff and students protected: Planning and training

In most districts, students, teachers, and faculty alike will likely, in some way or another, continue to use one or more devices to access either district-wide or school-specific infrastructure in the upcoming school year.

While prior to 2020 schools may not have prioritized their cybersecurity practices, the breaches that virtual school environments faced throughout the past year brought cybersecurity front and center. Security breaches in student learning environments can have serious implications for students beyond the classroom, as we saw from scenarios like that in Toledo, Ohio. In fact, in 2020, over half of education sector survey respondents to Mimecast’s 2020 State of Email Security Report saw increased phishing attacks and an average of 2-3 days of downtime as a result of ransomware attacks. With this in mind, cyber hygiene–keeping systems secure across a widespread userbase–must continue to be top of mind for IT teams.

This all begins with training. It’s imperative that IT staff keep their teams aware and are persistent in blocking potential threats. With the kickoff of the 2021 school year, IT departments should start by clearly explaining to their teams what can happen if systems are  compromised due to unsecure hardware, ineffective passwords, lack of VPN use, opening  unfamiliar links, and more. IT teams must guide individuals in understanding that prevention tactics like these can make all the difference in stopping unwanted intrusion or damage to data infrastructure.

Protecting data with disaster planning

While training and awareness go a long way towards protecting critical data infrastructure, schools also need to ensure they have a strong data backup and recovery plan in place for the 2021 school year. If data remains unattended without backups, any incident could potentially wipe out a school’s IT system completely. This could result in losing everything from student records to the day’s lesson plan, setting teachers and students back days and potentially even months. And the longer-term impact of potentially losing a student’s records could prevent them from getting the right guidance and grades needed to be successful.

In hybrid work scenarios, disaster recovery has quickly emerged as one of the most effective approaches for keeping data safe. Not just in the event of unforeseen natural disasters, but also to protect against manmade, intentional disasters like data breaches and hacks. Having a plan to ensure that data can be brought back for anyone involved in a potential scenario like this is critical, especially for educators.

Disaster recovery solutions ensure IT teams are able to maintain continuity in the event of a natural or man-made disaster. Because schools have such a high volume of users all dependent on quick access to information, a loss of data could prove costly and grind classes to a halt. It’s crucial to have a disaster recovery plan to ensure that school systems remain “always on.”

K-12 schools have seen radical changes over the last year. As school systems look ahead to the upcoming school year, district IT teams need to rethink now how they handle data management and infrastructure.

The future of K-12 learning is likely to demand far more network capacity and data infrastructure than in the past. And even in a time beyond the pandemic, this is unlikely to change. Strengthening secure network connectivity and prioritizing IT infrastructure is essential as data accessibility needs grow.

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