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5 Ways to Secure School Networks

If you're working as an IT specialist in a K-12 school or a university, odds are that you've seen your fair share of cyberattack attempts. Cybersecurity intrusions have become a major point of contempt in academic institutions in 2020 due to a majority of schoolwork being shifted to remote platforms.

Based on recent reports, schools are the number 2 targets of ransomware attacks, with 30% of education industry professionals falling for phishing emails. In addition, 87% of educational institutions experienced at least one successful cyberattack, with 85% being ready to invest funds into IT security expansion in 2021. With cybersecurity becoming more of an issue for school networks around the world, what can you do to circumvent the potential damages going forward?

1. Perform a Gap Analysis on your Existing Cybersecurity Systems

The best way to get started on protecting your school's internal network is to perform a thorough audit of its existing systems. What software packages are present on school computers in terms of antivirus and malware protection? How often are these software solutions updated, and does your budget allow for premium licenses? Are you using a centralized password system or allow your staff to set up personal security codes?

Performing what is commonly referred to as a gap analysis will allow you to assess where the school's security network sits currently. In some cases, the network may be too outdated or poorly set up, so the only logical solution is to rebuild the framework from scratch.

In these cases, your school's network may be vulnerable for several hours or days until you get the necessary systems back up. Communicate that to the staff so that no one "tempts faith" regarding risking a cybersecurity breach while you work on establishing the network.

2. Base your School Network’s Security on an Existing Framework

Depending on your expertise in security server networks in large-scale institutions, it may not be a good idea to manually set up the network's security. There are numerous cybersecurity frameworks available for your convenience based on where your school is located. Some choices available to you include:

  • NIST
  • ISO 27001/27002
  • HIPAA
  • GDPR
  • FISMA

Each of these frameworks is designed to provide IT departments with a set of rules which can protect enterprise-level networks from cybersecurity intrusions. Choose the one best suited to your school's scale, reliance on IT and intranet, as well as its budget allocated by the school district.

3. Provide the Staff with Contemporary Cybersecurity Training

Social engineering cybersecurity intrusions are a major issue not only in the educational sector. However, the private data of thousands of students are at risk from phishing, malware, and other forms of intrusions requiring a middleman to make a mistake. It can be somewhat mitigated by providing your school's staff with up-to-date training, seminars, and knowledge to spot malicious content online.

This can be an issue since the age gap present in school institutions doesn't allow older professors and staff to keep up with IT trends. The best way to communicate how serious of an issue cybersecurity attacks are is through examples. You can find studies and examples of educational institutions which experienced cybersecurity penetrations that led to critical issues going forward.

Teaching your staff how to keep their data safe, how to update passwords regularly, and how to recognize "fake" links, offers, and other content helps. The best way to protect your school’s network is through collaboration and agency in protecting the school's data – make sure everyone is clear on that.

4. Educate the Students and Limit Free Access to the Web

Your student body is an integral part of the cybersecurity firewall when it comes to social engineering intrusions. Just as your staff should be educated on how to protect their accounts and avoid malicious content, the same applies to students.

You can go a step further in this case and completely disable certain websites from being accessible on your network. Social media platforms, pirate content websites, and online gambling sites come to mind as prime suspects for malicious links. Disabling access to these websites in your school will not only mitigate cybersecurity risks but also keep students focused on their classes and projects.

Students often create cybersecurity issues with thumb drives and optical disks they bring from home – instruct them to use cloud storage instead. Beyond that, educational seminars, PDFs, and pamphlets with basic cybersecurity protocols should be shared with everyone.

5. Consider Integrating a VPN Service into the Network

Student privacy is extremely important, especially for K-12 institutions, where young children don't know any better than to click on interesting links online. You can protect them further by introducing a reliable VPN service into the network and masking the school's IP addresses. Services such as Nord VPN, Express VPN, and Pure VPN offer different licenses for enterprise-level applications which you can take advantage of.

While these services won't stop your students from accessing content they shouldn't, they will at least keep them anonymous and protect their identities. This extends to your school's staff as well, who may want to engage in remote video meetings or classes with students during social distancing.

You should make the VPN start automatically on any computer or tablet device present on your school's equipment roster. This won't mask devices that students bring from home, however, so cybersecurity discipline rules still apply to everyone.

Setting Up Security Standards in your School Network (Conclusion)

There is a lot that you can do in terms of preparing for good cybersecurity standards in your school. However, they will only be as effective as the people that use them are aware of malware and social engineering risks.

Communicate your worries to the staff and try to organize educational seminars on proper cybersecurity etiquette whenever you introduce a new security system or software. Perform scheduled audits and reviews of your school network to spot any inconsistencies or breach attempts on time. With some discipline and organization on your end, you will be able to protect your school from a majority of attacks going forward.


• Featured image provided by the author with a permission from FreePik.

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