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Ransomware Stalls Online Learning In Baltimore School District

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

All learning stopped in Baltimore County public schools this morning. Teachers and students were locked out of their online courses when a ransomware attack halted all of the district's digital systems. Emily Sullivan at member station WYPR reports.

EMILY SULLIVAN, BYLINE: Elena Lomicky thought she'd seen all possible remote learning blunders. But then, as the kindergarten teacher was preparing for a virtual parent-teacher conference, she learned of the attacks.

ELENA LOMICKY: I think if it had been any other year, my panic level probably would have been a lot higher. Honestly, I was like, of course there's a cyberattack.

SULLIVAN: She and other teachers are shut out of their grading portals, email and even their phones.

LOMICKY: I don't know how we're going to navigate this. My hope is that we will be able to get back into our virtual world as soon as possible.

SULLIVAN: Imagine if thieves snuck into school headquarters, loaded up every single document and then put those files in a warehouse only they can enter. That's how ransomware works - it encrypts systems, and only the hackers have the key. Avi Rubin is a computer science professor at Johns Hopkins University. He says while it's too early to say for certain, the attacks look serious.

AVI RUBIN: I don't think it's completely out of the question that we may not be able to finish out this year if we can't get back online in the next several weeks.

SULLIVAN: Schools are not traditional ransomware targets, but as many remain online, Rubin says hackers have more opportunities to infiltrate them.

RUBIN: Everybody is now using either Zoom or Microsoft Teams or some form of remote communication, and that includes students learning in school.

SULLIVAN: There's been at least 30 ransomware attacks on schools this year. This one has left more than 115,000 children who can't enter their classrooms due to the pandemic without a way to learn. Lomicky says she can't believe she's nostalgic for virtual learning.

LOMICKY: We get excited to see each other every day. And even though they're only seeing each other virtually, when one student is absent, they ask, why aren't they on the screen? - or they send virtual hugs to each other.

SULLIVAN: Baltimore County school officials say they're working with the FBI, and they don't plan on paying ransom.

For NPR News, I'm Emily Sullivan in Baltimore. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.