BrandPost: Lessons in Security: School District Shares Pandemic Experiences

The education sector is a top target for cybercriminals, and faces “an unusually large percentage” of social engineering attacks, according to the 2021 Verizon Data Breach Investigations Report.

The coronavirus pandemic, which spurred many individuals to study and work remotely, added to the industry’s challenges. For example, the K-12 Cybersecurity Resource Center reported an 18% increase in cyberattacks against schools over the previous year.

Administrators at the Lewisville Independent School District (LISD) in Texas also noticed this significant jump in threats.

“In the first month of the 2020-2021 school year, we saw a major increase in phishing emails,” said Chris Langford, director of network, infrastructure, and cybersecurity for LISD. “Our system blocked 16 million email threat messages during that month alone.”

Prepared for the pandemic

Lewisville ISD comprises five high schools, 15 middle schools, and 40 elementary schools with a total of 500,000 students. The district has sharpened its focus on security over the past several years, working to “balance investments in hardware, software, and services with education and training to protect our users,” Langford said.

Part of those investments included deploying Cisco Umbrella and Cisco Secure Email Cloud Gateway.

“We liked how all of the different products easily integrated with one another and the accessibility of granular controls,” Langford said.

Those deployments helped to smooth last year’s sudden shift to remote learning.

“When everybody went remote last year, we simply deployed the Cisco Umbrella agent to all of the devices so that we had the same filtering off-site that we had when we were on-site,” Langford said. “It provided another layer of protection that we didn’t have before.”

Both Umbrella and CES have proven their security worth. The district has had no major incidents, and Langford says CES has been “huge in mitigating risks” around the increase in email phishing threats.

Secure communications and collaboration

Lewisville ISD also reported a seamless transition to remote collaboration and communication because it had already been using Cisco Webex before the pandemic struck.

“Teachers were able to make and receive phone calls as if they were sitting at their desk in school because Webex integrated with our call manager system,” he said. “It prevented them from having to give out their personal information, and they weren’t getting interrupted by calls while they were trying to teach.”

Langford said the district is also pleased with Webex’s granular reporting functionality. “We can look at the number and length of meetings taking place, how many participants there were, and how many files are shared.”

Next, Lewisville ISD is rolling out Webex to provide more immersive experiences.

“We’re starting to put Webex into conference rooms at each campus with microphones and cameras, so staff members can virtually meet with parents,” Langford said. “We also plan to use it for district level meetings, which will be a great help considering our schools are spread across 127 miles.”

As Lewisville ISD discovered, Cisco offers a full suite of comprehensive security and data protection solutions that streamline cybersecurity.

Cyberattackers are becoming more sophisticated and the education sector is high on their target list. Schools, colleges, and universities should take a proactive approach toward securing both in-person and remote learning environments to protect students, faculty, and staff — as well as sensitive data.