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Top Tips for Online School Safety

Online learning has the potential to expose students, teachers and entire school systems to threats and dangerous situations. Accordingly, cyber security concerns for school leaders, educators and parents have increased in recent times.

The coronavirus pandemic has heightened these concerns as it forced a shift to remote online education. Every day, educators are grappling with this unprecedented challenge: How do we protect ourselves, our students, our colleagues and our schools when all instruction must happen online?

What Cyber Security Threats Do Students Face While in School?

Students can be exposed to inappropriate materials when hackers take control of users’ devices. The prevalent use of social media platforms can also expose students to cyber bullying. Online sexual predators may also approach students through these platforms, as well as video games and chat apps.

Inadequate security software and practices give people with bad intentions easy access to a school’s network and student devices. A single click on a pop-up window or email link could install malware on a student’s device, potentially exposing personal student information.

What About Teachers and Schools?

Teachers face the same cyber security threats as students. In addition to the possibility of compromising their personal information, there is an even more critical risk. Exposing a student’s educational record and personal information may constitute a violation of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA.

Stranger danger, however, is not the only threat to online safety in a school setting. With students capable of hacking into teacher computers, educators may experience cyber threats from within the classroom.

These and other vulnerabilities can also expose entire schools and school systems to large-scale cyber security threats, including malware or “ransomware.” These attacks have exposed personal data on students and staff and even shut down entire school districts’ digital information and communications systems.

How Can Educators Combat Cyber Threats?

School safety starts with prevention. There are several actions every school and educator can and should take to avoid internet threats.

  • Educators’ best defense against cyber insecurity is education itself. With appropriate cyber security awareness training and digital literacy development, school community members can recognize and identify cyber threats and take proactive measure to avoid and mitigate them.
  • Ensuring devices, networks and private accounts are password-protected is essential. This means creating complex passwords unique to every account and device, changing passwords regularly and making use of advanced security features like biometric passwords and two-factor authentication.
  • Devices should be updated regularly, as software companies are continuously improving security features. Antiviral programs, pop-up blockers and other preventive software can also help bolster device security.
  • Because insecure network connections provide hackers a backdoor into devices, accounts and saved information, school networks should be protected to the greatest degree possible. A Virtual Private Network (VPN) provides advanced encryption, securing information within the network.
  • Similar to red teaming in other fields, schools can adopt security training programs to give teachers and students exposure to simulated threats like email phishing scams. Through these exercises, all stakeholders can get better at recognizing, identifying and alerting others to potential threats.

What Cyber Security Risks Has the Pandemic Illuminated?

Schools work hard to combat cyber security risks within their walls but cannot control the security of network connections and device settings when students are sheltering at home, as home and public Wi-Fi networks can be vulnerable to attacks.

Schools that have established cyber security and digital literacy education initiatives are slightly ahead of the game. But students without adequate education in these areas are left to fend for themselves leaving many schools struggling to adapt to safe and secure online education.

It is becoming necessary for schools to equip teachers and students with secure devices, software and internet connectivity and invest in a VPN to encrypt information passing between remote machines. Unfortunately, economic inequities and funding cuts prevent many schools from making these and other e-learning and security investments.

Security and the Use of Innovative Platforms

Cyber security is key when selecting the best program for educational purposes. Group videoconferencing platforms are gaining popularity during the pandemic. However, uninvited participants sometimes enter virtual meetings and expose attendees to inappropriate material and images.

To keep their virtual classrooms safe, teachers can take advantage of the security features available in Zoom’s “Education Plan,” for instance. Using these tools, they can password protect the class meeting, monitor who enters, lock the class once it has begun, and manage how students may interact and post content.

Addressing cyber security risks while navigating the move to online education can be a daunting task. Yet with education, training and constant vigilance on everyone’s part, school leaders can take on the challenge of keeping their online school community safe.

Coursework in St. Thomas University’s online Master of Science in Educational Leadership prepares school leaders to address many of these issues. Program studies delve into topics like educational technology, ethical leadership, communication and law regarding student privacy and information. Educators can use this advanced knowledge to tackle safety concerns in this new era of online education.

Learn more about St. Thomas University’s Master of Science in Educational Leadership online program.


The New York Times: Hackers’ Latest Target: School Districts

Readiness and Emergency Management for Schools: Cybersecurity Considerations for K-12 Schools and School Districts

Education Dive: 3 Cybersecurity Tips Crucial to Secure Student Information in Remote Learning

VPN Mentor: Teacher’s Guide to Cybersecurity – Everything You Need to Know in 2020

Zoom: Best Practices for Securing Your Virtual Classroom

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