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Author: Eileen Belastock, CETL

“Our Biggest Nightmare Is Here”

Originally Published:
Education Next

On the night of September 2, 2019, Assistant Superintendent for Compliance and Information Systems Bhargav Vyas received a system-failure warning for Monroe-Woodbury Central School District in Central Valley, New York. With his team, he chose to shut down the district’s entire computer network. Then, at 7:30 the next morning, he got a call from one of his leading techs, who was bringing the domain controllers back up after the previous night’s shutdown.

“Our biggest nightmare is here,” the tech said.

That was when Vyas knew a cybersecurity attack was happening.

* * *

Of the 17 industries studied by information-security company SecurityScorecard, the education sector ranked as the least secure in 2018, with the highest vulnerabilities present in application security, endpoint security, and keeping software up to date. Online learning, which has increased gradually over the past decade and significantly since March 2020, has only exacerbated the possibility of exposing staff and student data to unauthorized parties.

The 2020 calendar year saw a record-breaking number of publicly disclosed school cybersecurity incidents—a grand total of 408 across 377 school districts in 40 states, according to the K–12 Cybersecurity Center. This represents an 18 percent increase over the 2019 calendar year total and a rate of more than two incidents per school day throughout 2020. These cyberattacks impacted taxpayers, district staff, and students, leading to school closures, millions of dollars stolen, and data breaches linked to identity theft and credit-card fraud.

Though these attacks affected only a small fraction of the overall number of schools and districts in the U.S., the frequency may increase as more lucrative targets, like corporations and banks, mount a better defense. According to the Consortium for School Networking’s 2019 K–12 IT Leadership Survey Report, rather “than focusing on corporate targets, which are devoting increased resources to cyber defenses,” hackers are turning to “more vulnerable sectors such as school districts, universities, and nonprofits.”

School districts’ networks are the perfect target for cybercriminals because they house a large amount of personal data but exist in a milieu not necessarily attuned to the threat of attack. While hackers’ individual motivations run the gamut, most of the attacks on school districts have been tied to cybercriminals looking for low-risk, high-return financial payoffs—which embattled district decisionmakers are willing to provide if it means keeping student and staff information private.

How Cyberattacks Happen: Phishing and Distributed Denial-of-Service Attacks

According to the Consortium for School Networking, more than 90 percent of cyberattacks in schools start with phishing campaigns, which include “spear phishing” and business-email compromise attacks. Spear phishing is characterized by a focus on specific individuals or groups within a larger organization; these attacks usually get a user to reveal personal information or install malicious software, or malware, on their computer. In a business-email compromise attack, cybercriminals impersonate a trusted party, usually a senior executive, to obtain payments or financial information. In a school-district context, business-email compromise is sometimes known as “Superintendent Fraud.”

Phishing attacks have become more sophisticated and difficult to detect. During the 2019–2020 school year, the San Felipe Del Rio Consolidated Independent School District was hit by a business-email compromise attack. A news release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Western District of Texas explained how the attack worked: The school district’s comptroller received phishing emails from cybercriminals posing as officials at the financial institution to which the district makes bond payments. Three of those bond payments were then diverted to the swindlers’ financial account, which cost the district more than $2 million, according to the release.

Schools and districts can also fall victim to distributed denial-of-service attacks, as the Boston Globe reported Boston-area districts Mansfield, Medfield, and Norton did during the 2020–2021 school year. In this type of attack, a targeted flood of internet traffic disrupts network availability by overwhelming the system and surrounding infrastructure. As a result, users are prevented from accessing payroll platforms, student schedules, and email applications, all of which are necessary to conduct the day-to-day operations of the school.

This disruption can be just as beneficial for cybercriminals as it is for students, who may want classes cancelled or a break from remote learning. In September 2020, a series of DDoS attacks targeting the Miami-Dade County Public Schools were traced to the IP address of a 16-year-old student at South Miami Senior High School, according to a news release from the school district.

In addition to the complete paralysis of a school system, most criminal DDoS attacks have a second purpose: to breach data and expose confidential or protected information that can be viewed, shared, and used as ransom.


While school networks are offline during a DDoS attack, hackers use malicious software to encrypt districts’ data. Districts are then forced to pay hackers a ransom to regain access to their data—hence the term “ransomware.” As of August 2021, ransomware attacks have disrupted 58 education organizations and school districts in the U.S., including 830 individual schools, according to Politico. These attacks sometimes have devastating consequences: In March 2021, the Miami Herald reported that Broward County Public Schools could not pay a $40 million ransom, and 26,000 stolen files, which included student and staff Social Security numbers, addresses, and birthdates, were published online.

Most school districts lack strong security protocols because they have small IT teams and significant budgetary constraints, so it may seem from the outside that education organizations are not making cybersecurity a priority. This assessment, however, does not reflect the progress being made in districts across the country.

Thwarted Ransomware Attacks: Case Studies

Monroe-Woodbury Central School District

Back to Monroe-Woodbury Central School District. As soon as the IT team knew an attack was underway, they notified Superintendent Elise Rodriguez and the other assistant superintendents. Rodriguez informed the board of education, and then the public relations director and communications team contacted the business office, the district attorney, and the insurance company. Within an hour, the district had an incident response team working with Vyas to contain the attack, assess the damage, and develop a mitigation plan. The cybercriminals had just started targeting the district’s servers when the storage area network shut down, so, luckily, they had nowhere to go to do more damage.

Once the team determined that they had stopped the ransomware, the district focused on restoring weeks’ and months’ worth of data from offline and cloud-based backup systems. It took the district a couple of days to build up a Microsoft infrastructure, but by the end of the first week, 70 percent of mobile devices were up and running. At the end of the second week, all systems were up and running, and Wi-Fi was brought back online for 3,000 student and staff devices and computers.

Vyas reflected that it “was strategic on our part—not from the ransomware perspective, but a resources perspective—that we had an updated disaster recovery plan that identified the location of our data in all systems, as well as a robust redundancy system. This strategic move mitigated any further damage and communication.”

Prior to the attack, the district had also gotten an assessment of their network from the National Institute of Science and Technology. In January and March 2019, the IT team used the audit recommendations to “plug the holes,” which, in hindsight, could have been a factor in mitigating the effects of the cyberattack.

The IT team tried to learn from the attack. Though they had no proof, they believed that allowing personal devices to connect to the school network may have been a factor in the attack. The district therefore changed its policies: Only school devices were allowed to access the network, and guest networks were eliminated.

Rodriguez established scenario-based cybersecurity training, because “security is not just a technology concern; it’s a district concern.” Vyas continues to educate the school community, including the school board, about the latest trends in cybersecurity because, as he puts it, “people forget.”

Haverhill Public Schools

The attack on Haverhill Public Schools in Haverhill, Massachusetts, started shortly after midnight on Wednesday, April 7, 2021. By 2:30 in the morning, Director of Technology Doug Russell and Systems/ Network Engineer Don Preston had been alerted of system failures. They realized that this was more than just a standard system alert, and the team immediately shut down the network that connected all 15 district schools.

As soon as Russell and his team understood the extent of the attack, they notified Superintendent Margaret Marotta. Marotta then informed the Haverhill Public Schools School Committee and other critical stakeholders. She became the central communications person, thus enabling the IT team to focus on mitigating the problem. Within a few hours, the district had implemented its crisis-recovery plan and connected with its IT consulting company, which joined with local police, state police, the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Multi-State Information Sharing and Analysis Center, an organization that helps local, state, and tribal governments with cybersecurity-incident response and remediation, to assess the situation. After a few hours of evaluating the network, the Haverhill team determined that 140 of the 13,000 district endpoint devices had been infected with the ransomware. Much of the virus had been funneled into the districts’ virtual server environment, and most of those virtual servers had then detected the infection and shut down—exactly as they had been designed to do.

Authentication and rostering servers were up and running by six o’clock in the evening on the day of the attack. Five days after the incident, the internet had been restored in all 15 buildings, with 98 percent of the systems fully functioning. The email system took two and half weeks longer to be fully restored.

“One of the things that saved us was the transition to laptops for staff during the pandemic,” Russell said. Most staff members’ computers were not on the district network when the attack happened.

Russell added that another helpful mitigating factor was “a change that we made a couple of years ago” to “our whole virtual environment,” which meant there was no clear path for the ransomware to follow. Also, the cyberattack did not impact district financial records because the payroll system was hosted by the City of Haverhill on a completely different network. Finally, Russell explained that moving many systems to cloud hosting made the attack less severe than it would have been if the district had hosted all of those systems internally.

The Multi-State Information Sharing and Analysis Center’s investigation of the attack is ongoing, and the district has yet to confirm if any personal data was compromised. The team at Haverhill Public Schools did learn that they needed to upgrade existing systems and backup options, though. Before the attack, they had data snapshots, and the district operated with two different systems running at the same time. “So even though everything was still being snapshot and backed up, we realized that some of those systems, if they were to shut down, or if they would have been infected the wrong way, wouldn’t have gotten the last couple snapshots that we needed to recover,” Russell said.

Working with an IT consultant and the district crisis response team, as well as Marotta’s support and additional funding from the Haverhill School Committee, Russell and his team determined the need to increase redundancy and upgrade their anti-malware software and anti-ransomware software.

“I feel like if that would have been running, or something would have been running better, it probably would have stopped it even sooner, and we would have had fewer servers to restore,” reflected Russell.

What Can Districts Do?

Cybersecurity training

According to the October 2020 IBM Education Ransomware Study, which involved interviews with 1,000 educators and 200 administrators, administrators were “20 percent more likely to receive cybersecurity training than educators” though they were “still unaware of critical information relevant to protecting their schools.” Eighty-three percent of administrators expressed confidence in their school’s ability to handle a cyberattack, for example, but more than 60 percent of them did not know if their school had a mitigation plan.

About 90 percent of the time, cyberattacks happen due to human error, said Haverhill’s Russell. The source of the Haverhill Public Schools attack was a phishing email, which allowed the hackers to access a virtual remote server. In the wake of the attack, the school community took action and recognized the need for more cybersecurity training and, specifically, for secure password protocols through standardized requirements, such as making sure passwords are a certain length or have special characters.

Back up, back up, back up

A robust backup system is the best protection against an attack, and the most effective backup systems are a) cloud-hosted or offline, b) not tied to a district’s domain, and c) inaccessible from the district network. The Monroe-Woodbury and Haverhill districts have used secure backup systems with redundancy for years, so when their virtual servers were attacked, they were assured the recovery of their data. Russell added that “a backup is vital” and that “if districts are not backing up correctly, they will never be able to recover” from an attack.

Cybersecurity insurance

In 2020, the average cost of a data breach was $3.79 million for districts and other education organizations in the U.S., according to IBM’s annual report on data-breach costs. When the Manor Independent School District, a small district in Texas, was compromised by a phishing scam in January 2020, CBS Austin reported that it cost the community $2.3 million.

Most insurance companies now offer cyber liability insurance to school districts, for an average of $1,600 a year, according to AdvisorSmith. Though the cost varies based on size and location, districts could end up saving millions by adding this insurance to their yearly operational budgets. In November 2019, when Port Neches-Groves Independent School District in Texas was hit by a ransomware attack, a cybersecurity insurance rider on their district policy covered the $35,000 ransom demand, reported KBMT news. The district ended up getting back access to their systems—at the relatively low cost of a $2,500 insurance deductible. Cybersecurity insurance often covers not just the cost of the ransom itself, but of IT experts to analyze the breach, a marketing firm to manage the district’s response, and lawyers to advise the best next steps, as well lost revenue. The insurance also provides credit monitoring for the students and staff whose records were exposed by the breach.

Other best practices

Districts can reduce infections by filtering at the email gateway, maintaining updated antivirus and anti-malware software, and using a centrally managed antivirus solution. In addition, because some attacks are accidental, districts should apply the principle of data governance, or giving users access only to the data they need to do their jobs. It is also critical that districts maintain a robust asset-management system, retain and secure logs from network devices and local hosts, and baseline and analyze network activity to determine behavioral patterns. While districts may feel vulnerable and helpless in the wake of an attack, these proactive, rather than reactive, actions will determine the overall impact of a cybersecurity attack.

The Work of Many

Districts cannot fight off the hacker hordes alone. Though the ESSER fund provides billions of dollars to school districts for support in the wake of Covid-19, the money allocated to support broadband access, equipment purchases, and remote-learning infrastructure does not cover districts’ cybersecurity needs, such as upgraded firewalls. In June 2021, Senators Mark R. Warner and Susan Collins wrote a letter to Education Secretary Miguel Cardona advising the department to make Covid-19 relief funds available for cybersecurity resources. The letter also recommends that the U.S. Department of Education engage with school districts to increase awareness of the need for more robust cybersecurity measures.

On October 8, 2021, President Biden signed the K–12 Cybersecurity Act of 2021. This bill authorizes the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency to study the specific risks impacting K–12 institutions, develop recommendations for cybersecurity guidelines, and create an online toolkit districts can use for implementation. Additionally, a bipartisan group of four House members introduced the Enhancing K–12 Cybersecurity Act in June 2021. This law would direct the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency to create a cybersecurity information exchange, a K–12 incident reporting registry, and a $10 million, annual technology-improvement program. Organizations such as the Consortium for School Networking, State Educational Technology Directors Association, and National Association of State Chief Information Officers supported the bill.

When it comes to a cyberattack on a school district, it is no longer a matter of if but when. No longer does the danger zone start at the perimeters of district infrastructure and network. The danger zone now lies within the walls of school districts themselves. We must assume that, whether they are malicious or accidental, bad actors exist within our own systems.

Best Practices for Stopping Ransomware Attacks

Original Published:
EdTech Magazine

A vetted, strategic cybersecurity plan helped one school district successfully push back against cyberattackers.

The annual back-to-school superintendent conference day on Sept. 3, 2019, at New York’s Monroe-Woodbury Central School District should have been one of excitement and reconnection for staff and administrators. But that wasn’t the case for Bhargav Vyas, who serves as the district’s assistant superintendent for compliance and information systems as well as its data protection officer. Instead, the night before, his team got a system failure warning that caused them to start troubleshooting early in the morning.

It started at 7:30 a.m. When bringing up the domain controllers, one of the leading techs called and said, “Our biggest nightmare is here.” Vyas knew then that a cyberattack was underway.

Cybersecurity Incidents Spike During the Pandemic

According to “The State of K-12 Cybersecurity: 2020 Year in Review” from the K-12 Cybersecurity Resource Center and the K12 Security Information Exchange, what happened at Monroe-Woodbury is becoming increasingly common. The 2020 calendar year saw a record-setting 408 publicly disclosed cybersecurity incidents. These attacks, which affected 377 school districts across 40 states, resulted in temporary school closures, millions of stolen taxpayer dollars and student data breaches linked to identity theft and credit card fraud.

Schools moving to remote and online learning environments in March 2020 only exacerbated the problem. With the rapid shift to remote learning putting more devices into students’ and teachers’ hands, a lack of cybersecurity training, and plenty of enticing free apps to download, cracks in schools’ cybersecurity were almost inevitable.

IBM’s Education Ransomware Study, released in October 2020, surveyed 1,000 K–12 and college educators and 200 K–12 and college administrators. It found that “while administrators are 20 percent more likely to receive cybersecurity training than educators, they are still unaware of critical information relevant to protecting their schools.”

Pre-Emptive Protocols Lead to Faster Recovery

When Monroe-Woodbury faced down its cyberattackers in 2019, it was ready. Well before the attack, the district had established both internal protocols and a disaster recovery plan.

As soon as the IT team became aware of the attack, it notified Superintendent Elsie Rodriguez and the other assistant superintendents. Once Rodriguez informed the Monroe-Woodbury board of education of the situation, the communications team and the public relations specialist contacted all key stakeholders, including the business office, the district attorney and the insurance company.

Within an hour, the district had an incident response team working with Vyas to contain the attack, assess the damage, and develop a mitigation plan. The attackers had just started targeting the servers when the storage area network was shut down, so there was nowhere to go to do more damage.

We had an updated disaster recovery plan that identified the location of our data in all systems, as well as a robust redundancy system. This strategic move mitigated any further damage and communication.”

Bhargav Vyas Assistant Superintendent for Compliance and Information Systems, Monroe-Woodbury Central School District

Once the IT team finished restoring data from the snapshots cleared by the incident response team, it took a few days to build up a Microsoft infrastructure. By the end of the first week, 70 percent of the district’s mobile devices were back up and running, including those for transportation services. At the end of the second week, the IT team had all systems up and was able to bring Wi-Fi back online to connect mobile devices for 3,000 students and staff.

Plug the Holes with Internal Security Lessons

Looking back, Vyas says, “it was strategic on the district’s part, not from the ransomware perspective but from a resources perspective, that we had an updated disaster recovery plan that identified the location of our data in all systems, as well as a robust redundancy system. This strategic move mitigated any further damage and communication.”

The district made another strategic move that may have hindered the attack. It signed up for a National Institute of Standards and Technology cybersecurity assessment that reviewed risks and threats to the district’s entire network.

Months before the attack, the IT team used the assessment’s recommendations to “plug the holes,” which, in hindsight, could have been a factor in a much more significant cyberattack. It was essential for the district’s IT team to build up goodwill and support, so staff and teachers were educated on cybersecurity and best practices for keeping their data safe. While not everyone understood the technology, they recognized the importance of cybersecurity and trusted the process.

Finally, the team placed great emphasis internally on implementing an electronic inventory and ensuring that record-keeping was accurate and secure. As a result, when reimaging all devices and computers after the cyberattack, the IT team knew the device location and count within 5 percent.

Training Ensures Everyone Stays Educated

After the attack, the Monroe-Woodbury IT team focused on lessons learned. The district changed its policies so that only school devices could access the network, and guest networks were eliminated. Noting that “security is not just a technology concern, it’s a district concern,” Superintendent Rodriguez established scenario-based cybersecurity tabletop training.

Critical stakeholders such as the disaster response team, IT department, business office, and support staff continue working together to ensure they’re well prepared for the future. Because people forget, Vyas continues to educate the school community, including the school board, about developments in cybersecurity. He adds that, even in a cyberattack or pandemic, with the right people on your team and a willingness to do what is best for students, you can work together to give technology back to the school community.

Digital Learning Annual Conference DLAC 2021: A Preview

Originally Published: 

Austin, Texas, is a place of eclectic music, beautiful lakes, superb Tex-Mex and BBQ restaurants, and on June 14-16, 2021, it will host the second annual Digital Learning Annual Conference (DLAC). 

This innovative conference will focus on online, hybrid, and blended strategies and solutions that best support the entire school community. Unlike other conferences, DLAC 2021 will not be a “sit and get” event. Instead, attendees will have opportunities to share their experiences, learn through collaboration, and network with colleagues in facilitated sessions and informal settings. The organizers believe that there is value in the hallway conversations outside the sessions and aim to maximize those opportunities while maintaining the benefits of more traditional conference programming. 

Understanding that not everyone will attend the conference in person, DLAC 2021 has thoughtfully created its conference in a flexible hybrid model, with onsite and online attendance options. The online option will occur in three segments: an online conference opening June 8; onsite sessions June 14-16 that offer online programming; and a final DLAC Encore online session on June 30. 

Session Types

DLAC 2021 guarantees that both their online and in-person sessions will be shorter, livelier, and more interactive than most conferences, “creating a high-energy gathering built on sharing and conversations.”  

Onsite DLAC includes contributed talks, workshops, panel discussions, debates, table talks, and PechaKucha talks. In addition, DLAC online presentations, discussions, and networking opportunities will include extensive break-out rooms to allow small group video discussions and text chat options.

Finally, live streaming several sessions from Austin will give online attendees a connection to the onsite conference with live moderators and real-time interaction. 


Focusing on topics relevant to the many districts seeking to create, expand, and improve digital learning, conference-goers will have the opportunity to attend sessions relevant to our new world of online schools and classrooms. Tracks will offer consecutive sessions that will provide attendees with planning and implementation strategies that support robust digital learning initiatives. 

For districts looking to create or expand their online and hybrid learning environments, the How to Start an Online School Track will dive into critical topics such as setting goals, operational and district policies, and how best to support online teachers. The twelve Online Teaching Track sessions will help the needs of both new and experienced online teachers with topics such as Building Community in the Online Classroom, Engaging Reluctant/Struggling Learners, and Synchronous vs. Asynchronous Strategies. Finally, the challenges of the hundreds of school districts expanding their use of blended learning in summer 2021 and school year 2021-22 will be addressed in The Blended Teaching Track, which will focus on creating customized learning pathways, understanding blended learning in the early grades, and, most importantly, designing engaging online learning experiences.  

Recognizing the challenges faced by rural school communities during the recent pandemic, DLAC 21 includes various online and blended learning sessions specifically for rural teachers and administrators. Sessions of interest include highlighting how a rural district addressed continuity of learning during the pandemic using various learning models, online tools, and digital content, and how to engage and provide equity for more than 150 square miles.

While in-person conferences are slow to come back, DLAC 2021 has found the secret sauce of connecting districts and educators across the country through their hybrid conference model.

When they launched DLAC in 2019, they said: “No technology has ever transformed education quickly, and we see no sign that technology is about to do so. But we see plenty of examples of dedicated school leaders, caring teachers, thoughtful providers, effective researchers, and respectful policymakers using technology to improve student opportunities and outcomes.

This commitment is reflected in DLAC’s focus on the needs of their community and providing professional development experiences that will ensure sustainable, effective, and engaging digital learning experiences for our students.  

ISTELive 21 Preview: Designing a New Learning Landscape

Originally Published:

With live, interactive, and immersive learning sessions, featured voices, playgrounds, poster sessions, and an expo hall, this virtual ISTE conference exemplifies that “the show must go on!”

For those of us still energized and inspired from attending the ISTE 2020 Reimaged Virtual Conference, we will have another opportunity to engage, experience, and connect at ISTELive 21 – Designing a New Learning Landscape, June 26-30, 2021. 

Again, ISTE is proven to create a virtual conference experience that models what educators across the country have implemented in their hybrid and remote classrooms – engaging, personalized, collaborative learning experiences. With live, interactive, and immersive learning sessions, featured voices, playgrounds, poster sessions, and an expo hall, this second virtual ISTE conference exemplifies that “the show must go on!” 

As an innovative and forward-thinking conference, instead of the usual keynote speakers, ISTELive 21 will highlight powerful voices with inspiring stories that impact education. During the five-day event, featured voices will include educators, thought leaders, and authors such as Brett Salak, Regina Gonzalez de Cossio, Patricia Brown, Dominic Caguioa, Alberto and Mario Herreaz, and Dr. Henry Turner. Critical topics such as inequity, anti-racism, global collaboration, and the pandemic’s impact on our students will be addressed by these experts, who will look to inspire us to lead change.  

No matter the roles of the attendees, they will be hard-pressed not to find sessions tailored to their challenges, areas of interest, and future initiatives. ISTE has crafted 39 professional development topics that include relevant and timely challenges such as online and blended classroom models, social-emotional programming, and student-driven game-based learning. In addition, unlike in-person conferences during which attendees must choose between sessions, the live recording, and media-rich on-demand sessions ensure that attendees can fully experience all that  ISTELive 21 offers during and after the conference.  

Fourteen topic-based session lists curated by the ISTE Professional Learning Networks allow attendees access to high-quality presenters and learning experiences.

Not to be missed are the 80 international content sessions whose theme is “listen, learn, share and stay connected globally.”

Global change-makers such as Sandra Chow, Dr. Kelly Grogan, and Dr. Jessica Hale will present “Pathways to Tomorrow: Building Global Competencies through Intercultural Experiences” to expand perspectives on competencies for our students’ future. In the “Best tools for Global Collaboration” ISTE Global Collaboration, PLN leaders Margret Atkinson and Anne Mirtschin will explore tools that can help provide successful connections, interactive problem-solving, and professional networking and development in virtual environments.

If you are a district or school leader, it is worth the price of admission to attend the Leadership Exchange. This recently added pre-conference event brings together worldwide educational leaders such as Ken Shelton, Temple Lovelace, Kumar Garg, and Adina Sullivan-Marlow. The focus of the Exchange is to provide edtech leaders with collaborative opportunities to accelerate transformational practices and explore emerging models of post-pandemic learning.  

As we are closing the books on this school year and looking ahead with hope and possibilities for the upcoming school year, ISTELive 21 is the event that will highlight, support, and rejuvenate our commitment to our students. So, take advantage of the collaborative experiences, connect with colleagues doing the work, and end this year with renewed energy and enthusiasm for a new learning landscape of SY 2021.  

Leading Teaching and Learning in Today’s World

Originally Published:

The 2021 Driving K-12 Innovation report released by CoSN selected the most critical Hurdles (challenges), Accelerators (mega-trends), and Tech Enablers (tools) that school districts are facing with personalized learning, innovation, and digital equity. In a recent edWebinar, sponsored by ClassLink and co-hosted by CoSN and AASA, education leaders reflected on the challenges of the past year and the possibilities of the upcoming school year. 


According to the CoSN report, the standard definition of hurdles is a roadblock that forces schools to slow down, prepare themselves, and then make the leap. When asked about the hurdles that happened due to schools closing on March 13th, 2020, all four presenters agreed that broadband, not devices, challenged their districts to provide equitable access to learning no matter their districts’ geographic location or demographics. Dr. Carol Kelley, Superintendent of Oak Park Elementary District 97 (IL), stated, “We were not as prepared as we could have been to have made that shift in terms of our practices and pedagogy.” Director of Schools for Wilson County Schools (TN), Dr. Donna Wright’s hurdles included broadband issues and a tornado that hit the area two weeks before closing schools. “We were almost stunned into paralysis, which is a hurdle in itself, but then it became an urgency as far as what do we need to do next.”


As defined by the CoSN report, accelerators are megatrends that drive change. In Maury County Public Schools (TN), former Superintendent of Schools Dr. Chris Marczak said, “As we had to hit the brakes on many things, parents demanded that their children continue learning, which is understandable from a public K through 12 sectors. So, we had to think on our toes about what we would do throughout those next couple of months to hit the needs of our parents while still dealing with the hurdles.” In Wilson County, they focused on students by understanding them intimately and identifying their strengths before determining their needs. In Township High School District 214 (IL), where Dr. David Schuler is Superintendent, they doubled down on how to personalize the pathway for every child and enhance the student voice and student choice.

Tech Enablers  

A question put to all the presenters by Ann McMullan, Project Director of CoSN’s EmpowerED Superintendent Initiative, was, “Were there pieces of technology that you had in place already that enabled you to grease the wheels so that you could surmount the challenges that you were facing?”

Echoed by all four presenters, Dr. Schuler described how his district outfitted parking lots with internet and WiFi for students who could not access WiFi at home. His district also ensured that apartment complexes and mobile home parks could access WiFi with overnight placements of minibuses with hotspots. Dr. Wright’s district created a parent university that provided opportunities for parents to understand what their children would be experiencing and how they could support learning at home. Dr. Kelley stated her tech enablers included her amazing technology team that was instrumental in supporting technology during the transition to online learning. Finally, Dr. Marczak focused on the demand and need for a consistent and transparent parent community by launching a Facebook Live and Periscope blast to talk directly to parents and community members about what was going on in the schools. 

Looking Forward

Frankie Jackson, Independent K-12 Chief Technology Officer in Texas, highlighted the efforts by CoSN and the fact that all discussions by the advisory board regarding innovation in K-12 have happened over the last year. Personalization and digital collaborative environments identified in the fall of 2019 have accelerated due to the pandemic. When asked about which lens her district was looking through for the upcoming school year, Dr. Kelley reflected that tech enablers and system thinking would drive the following year. “The district is leveraging my departure as an opportunity to help the community come together to envision, build, and prioritize what they see as the future of learning,” Dr. Marczak stated. “We realized in the Department of Defense that we couldn’t go back to the way things were before March 13th of 2020. The world has changed. It is going to be different moving forward. So, we’ve worked hard on that cooperation around using tech to enable the work we’re doing moving ahead.”

Dr. Schuler said, “We’re excited about how we’re planning to accelerate the rate of learning for all of our students thinking through a school community lens. In addition, we are looking to bring in more supports through our ESSER dollars. The supports include providing more social work outreach to families and thinking through what trauma our students and staff may have experienced this year.” While at the same time, his district is also accelerating personalizing learning environments for every child to ensure that they have access to early college credit. Dr. Wright stated that it would have to be the accelerator because that is something that we stumbled into by accident. “With the virtual option that we built overnight, we were ready for remote and other small or short-term experiences.” Still, the virtual program has seen children thrive who failed in a brick-and-mortar classroom so that personalization became even more critical. McMullan concluded the presentation by stating, “What I see as an accelerator for all four of you is your incredible leadership. In the last year, we have learned that leadership does matter, and exemplary leadership and good leadership are what will drive this forward. The four of you are exemplars of the power of good leadership, which is an accelerator.

Leveraging Social-Emotional Behavior Data to Plan for Next Year

Originally Published:

About one in five kids will exhibit some type of severe social-emotional behavioral symptoms that would qualify for some level of support. And yet, very early since the pandemic began, there has been over a 20% increase of kids experiencing depression or anxiety after one month of lockdown with a disproportionate impact on students from minoritized populations.

According to Nathaniel von der Embse, Ph.D., NCSP, Associate Professor of School Psychology at the University of South Florida, and Stephen Kilgus, Ph.D., Associate Professor of School Psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, there has been an increase of nearly one-third of kids accessing mental health services within an emergency room setting.

In an edLeader Panel, sponsored by Illuminate Education, both Dr. von der Embse and Dr. Kilgus recognize that it’s been tremendously challenging for untold millions of students and families to meet their mental health needs, and COVID-19 has exacerbated some of those existing risk factors. Students ultimately depend on those services delivered within a school setting, and many schools now face the challenge of serving an increased number of kids in need.

When thinking about mental health, it’s important to note that academic success doesn’t always equate to school success. Such things as academic skills, social-emotional skills, and behavioral skills are necessary to benefit from that high-quality instructional environment.

It is critical for school districts to be proactive and use evidence-based approaches towards recognizing the early symptoms and signs of mental health needs.

The most common way to address this systemwide or schoolwide is positive behavioral interventions and supports, or PBIS. Within a PBIS system, any sound Multi-Tiered System of Support should be adequate for about 80% of kids. Tier 2, or more targeted levels of support, should be for about 15%. The most intensive and individualized supports should live at the 5% level.

Evidence-based intervention is dependent on an evidence-based assessment process, and the presenters recommended universal screening using tools such as the Social, Academic, Emotional Behavior Risk Screener (SAEBRS). Universal screeners can be a temperature check for student populations for schools. It can provide schools with an understanding of the prevalence of mental health concerns, measure how students’ behaviors and social well-being have changed throughout COVID-19, and the best course of action in applying for interventions and support across schools.

In terms of data use, both Dr. von der Embse and Dr. Kilgus recommend schools thoroughly plan and develop a base rate, resource map, and intervention guide. Implementation considerations regarding universal screening should include questions such as: “Is the data graphed and sufficient to make decisions?”, “Based on the progress monitoring data, is their progress towards Standards-Based Teaching and Learning?”, and “Based on progress monitoring is the intervention(s) implementation with fidelity?”

Finally, any program that leverages social-emotional behavior data must be looked at through an equity lens. It is essential to train raters, educators, or students in the content and purpose of screening, including implicit bias, as disaggregated data can be a powerful tool to identify inequities in a system.

Leading Learning in a Blended Environment

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According to the Oxford English Dictionary, blended learning is a style of education in which students learn via electronic and online media and traditional face-to-face teaching. As stated by Ann McMullan, Project Director for CoSN’s EmpowerED Superintendent Initiative, the world that we have been living in for over the last year or so looks very much like a combination of both.

In a recent edWebinar, sponsored by ClassLink and co-hosted by CoSN and AASA, the presenters talked about leading learning in a blended environment. They address the four critical areas that school leaders must address as outlined in the Leadership for Digital Learning Initiative—technological platforms, human platforms, program management, and communications with all internal and external stakeholders. 

School systems need to prepare both their technology and human platforms for new ways of doing things and for continual, ongoing improvements for maximum impact.

In Meriden Public Schools (CT), they are committed to promoting anytime, anywhere learning. Educational content needs to be available outside of the classroom and easy to access. According to the district’s superintendent, Dr. Mark Benigni, their cloud-based solutions, including ClassLink, supports students spending additional time online learning.

Winchester Public Schools (VA) has taken a scaffolding approach to technology. According to Dr. Jason Van Heukelum, Superintendent, “You don’t want to stifle that creativity and innovation with your teachers. It is important to foster that exploration of other digital tools by teachers on their own and then scale up when specific tools are practical and have a lot of momentum.”  

The superintendents agreed that one of the challenges of leading in a blended environment is navigating human platforms. In Salem City Schools (VA), in which Dr. Alan Seibert is Superintendent, by honoring diverse content areas and levels, they have built a strong pedagogy around teaching strategies and knit it to the larger district goal. Dr. Van Heukelum concurred. “We are a people-intensive business, and many teachers all come at it with their flavor. If you do not invest in the professional development and the professional learning of teachers, you’re not going to get the most bang for your buck.”

McMullan said, “I think if we’ve learned anything in this pandemic year, it is the importance of communication and being sure that the right message gets out to the right people.” Dr. Seibert’s district gave a lot of thought to who the communication is intended for and uses classroom teachers to communicate messages to parents as often as possible. For Dr. Benigni’s district, the survey mechanism and some face-to-face open forums have been beneficial.

Lessons learned from the three leaders highlighted the positives that have come out of the pandemic. Dr. Van Heukelum said the pandemic accelerated the learning curve for his teachers in many respects, and pedagogically they are in a better place than they were a year ago. Dr. Benigni reflected that what he learned was not about the device itself but how it supports education in the classroom. “The products that work best for us are the partners we’ve always had.” All concurred with Dr. Seibert, who said that building relationships by any means necessary is highly critical, “Some of life’s best lessons are learned a

How this Texas district prioritizes SEL

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The Covid-19 pandemic may be on everyone’s minds right now, but school districts grappled with another pandemic before the virus changed our world. School violence incidents such as the Parkland School shooting were increasing, and students’ physical and mental well-being was at critical levels.

In the 2018-2019 school year, to measure its students’ mental health and well-being, New Caney ISD partnered with Panorama, a data collection system, to gather information from 10,000 students whose results highlighted significant SEL deficits.

Simultaneously, the 2019 Texas Legislature expanded SB11 to include student safety and mental health support for public schools. According to Loree Munro, New Caney ISD’s director of Advanced Academics and Counseling, the legislative traction of SB11 helped the district propel its initiative to incorporate SEL throughout the school district.

In the fall of the 2019-20 school year, using grants from organizations such as Mental Health America of Greater Houston, New Caney ISD piloted its SEL program at two elementary schools, two middle schools, and its early college high school. Using essential criteria such as common language across all grade levels, turnkey implementation, a light lift for teachers, and alignment with the CASEL competencies, the district implemented the 7 Mindsets program. This research-based SEL program promotes self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making.

Despite the challenges presented when schools went remote in March 2020, New Caney ISD expanded the 7 Mindsets program district-wide in the fall of 2020.

“When I think back, I so appreciate and the dedication of our school and district leaders to continuing down this path because it would have been easy to say this is not the year to implement anything new,” Munro reflected.

What kept the district on course was its belief that students needed to acquire those social and emotional skills and competencies necessary for success in life. New Caney ISD committed to including SEL in explicit instruction, embedding SEL language across the curriculum and grade levels, and reinforcing SEL throughout the week to ensure that it is at the forefront of students’ minds.

While there are still bumps in the road and challenges to overcome, implementing an SEL program–even during a pandemic–has already resulted in fewer tier two and tier three interventions in the district.

Teachers, support staff, and building administration say they can identify and address students with behavioral needs and mental health issues more quickly at a tier-one level using 7 Mindsets.

While New Caney ISD had financial advantages that other districts may not have, Munro recommends that districts quantify the need to implement SEL using programs like Panorama and present the data to school boards and district administration. Once deficits are discovered, the district’s ethical responsibility is to address its students’ needs. Identifying critical players, and ensuring all have a deep understanding of SEL and the impact an SEL program can have on students and teachers, are the next steps.

Munro also recommends that while school districts may begin an SEL program at the elementary level, it is critical to have a vision for the entire K-12 school community.


Education Leaders Reflect on Anniversary of COVID-19

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For the most superstitious amongst us, Friday the 13th always conjures up thoughts of bad luck and Jason Voorhees. However, Friday, March 13, 2020, will forever bring fear and terror to all our minds due to the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic that crippled health systems and closed schools across the globe. Education leaders, teachers, parents, and communities scrambled to provide meals, establish mental health supports, institute robust safety protocols, provide students with devices and hotspots, train educators on remote learning, and do everything possible to connect with students. 

This remarkable and overwhelming achievement reflected the dedication and commitment of district leaders to provide a safe, engaging learning environment for students even during such a horrific time in history. Superintendents Kimberly Moritz, Springville-Griffith Institute CSD, Todd Dugan, Bunker Hill CUSD #8, and Cassandra Schug, Watertown USD, and high school principals, Shannon M. Mayfield, Allentown SD, and Bill Runey, Attleboro PS, pause to reflect on the first anniversary year of COVID-19 and look to the future possibilities.  

Most Significant Impact 

The unforeseen and unprecedented school closures put all school districts into crisis mode on March 13, 2020. School districts were unprepared and ill-equipped to handle the overwhelming obstacles and immediate needs. 

Both Mayfield and Runey agree that the loss of engagement and direct connection with those they serve (students and families) was the most significant impact.

Runey recalls that student-teacher relationships suffered because, “We didn’t lay eyes on students for months.” 

In Dugan’s district, “It was the suddenness and the surreal effect it had on teachers and students,” he says. “Teachers wanted desperately to deliver and visit students even while under a stay-at-home order. The immediate impact was a sudden clarity on what was now ‘essential’ in learning.”  

Schug says, “The two most significant impacts were student learning loss and increased social, emotional learning needs that we could not meet effectively for our students and our families.”  

All of the district leaders recognized that school closures most affected their vulnerable populations. Committed to prioritizing young students and students in need of services, Dugan, Moritz, and Schug set up programming and outreach services to provide tutoring, transportation, and opportunities for some students to attend in-person learning. In Runey’s district, a virtual academy extended support, tutoring, and interventions that provided the necessary systems to ensure all students had access to their learning. 

“The educational disconnect for close to a full year has irreparably created a void with our students and necessitates a complete reset for many,” says Mayfield.

An upgraded aspect of the food and clothing outreach program in Mayfield’s district included both social and mental health support for families and students. 

Light at the End of the Tunnel

Despite the hardships, 2020 brought the future to the present with communication, professional development, and technology that forever changed our educational systems. 

Communication with the school community has always been a consistent challenge for educational leaders. Yet during the pandemic, school districts, more than ever before, needed to find ways to connect with the school community. The academic leaders in these five districts focused time, energy, and resources on developing creative, effective, and sustainable communication processes. Each district created Covid-19 specific websites and used various communication tools to ensure that they could reach all families. 

Dugan notes that out of necessity, the school community became comfortable with multiple communication mediums, including social media tools such as Instagram and Twitter. Shrug says that virtual school board and community meetings resulted in more attendance and broader audience reach with recorded sessions. 

“No matter how many ways I’ve said it or how often someone feels left out,” says Moritz, “boring redundancy is my motto with any message, and direct 1:1 conversation is always best.”  

Both Mayfield and Runey, in districts with their high populations of low-income and non-English speaking families, say that family outreach and effective communication were paramount to their respective school communities. Effective strategies in Runey’s district featured translation tools, imagery, and links that simplified communication. Runey now includes his high school students in all communications in his building due to complicated home lives in which students don’t always get essential messages. 

After March 13, 2020, professional development events that typically took place in auditoriums, cafeterias, and faculty rooms pivoted to online web conferencing platforms such as Zoom and Google Meet. In Mayfield’s district, like many districts, teachers had to be trained to learn new virtual learning environments for remote learning. Training teachers to use online platforms challenged his district to adjust based on curriculum needs and staff levels constantly. 

Moritz says that a much greater acceptance of online PD came out of the necessity to ensure that teachers can navigate and teach virtually. Both Schug and Dugan agree that the advent of more technology has expanded opportunities to include virtual programming and self-paced opportunities, and provided flexibility for staff. Runey recognizes that his school community has shown the other side of humanity regarding PD in which “everyone is kinder and willing to help each other.”  

While many districts struggled with 1:1 initiatives before the pandemic, the sense of urgency to provide students with an education in an online environment brought technology’s inequity to the surface. Districts such as Moritz’s ensured that there was finally a device in every student’s hands and provided hotspots to families who needed them. 

Schug says that they adopted highly effective technology learning platforms that allowed them to offer instruction virtually while also providing personalized and adaptive instruction in face-to-face environments. “Teachers are much more adept at these learning platforms, and they have used them to supplement face-to-face instruction significantly,” she says.  

Runey says that technology instituted before and during the pandemic, such as establishing Attleboro’s Virtual Academy and utilizing virtual parent-teacher meetings and programs including Talking Points for ESL parents, has positively disrupted education in his district. Dugan says that while his district has been innovative with technology due to the pandemic, broadband, a necessity for online learning, continues to be a challenge. It is still years from being a universal offering in rural, outlying areas. 

Glass Half Full

No one can predict how the upcoming FY2021-22 school year will look. However, these education leaders agree that positive and forward-thinking initiatives have come out of the tsunami tidal wave that affected all aspects of our lives. 

“Our very best teachers continue to lead the way with outstanding preparation for remote learning,” says Moritz. “Our teams are more vital than ever before–our administrative team, our relationship with the teachers’ union, our interaction with families–all much better.” 

Dugan is witnessing creative ways teachers and curriculum leaders combine multiple subjects into one learning experience in his district to maximize precious class time. “[We’ve had] a realization that grades/work completed does NOT equal learning,” he says. “Instead, it has become apparent that, especially in secondary grades where significant learning loss did NOT occur, lower grades reflect either lack of engagement or compliance.” 

“It is the incorporation of technology into tasks where we haven’t used it before,” says Schug. “We have seen reduced challenging student behaviors and increased enthusiasm about attending school and its value to our students and families. We have built stronger relationships with our students and families as we have all worked to navigate the unique challenges of this school year.” 

Runey says that edtech programs in place before and during school closures have provided students with ownership and responsibility for their learning. “There is increasing appreciation for the things we haven’t been able to have,” he says, summing up the group’s thoughts. “Everyone is more aware of being safer in general; family connections have strengthened, and learning is personalized and tailored to students’ interests and needs.”  

Insights from Leaders on Closing the Attendance Gap

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Even before COVID-19 created online, remote, and hybrid learning environments in school districts across the country, most district and school leaders struggled with chronic absenteeism in their schools. Researchers like Dr. Todd Rogers, Professor of Public Policy at Harvard University and Chief Scientist at EveryDay Labs, have tirelessly worked with school districts to identify, develop and implement strategies to reduce absenteeism at scale.

When the pandemic hit, communities experienced the highest rate of chronic absenteeism due to students and families learning from home. In a recent edWeb edLeader Panel, sponsored by EveryDay Labs, Dr. Rogers, along with Dr. Carletha Shaw-Rolle, Cadre Director CS 1, Broward County Public Schools (FL), Dr. Elena S. Hill, Assistant Superintendent for Early Learning, Dallas Independent School District (TX), and Jennifer Kretschman, Director MTSS, LCSSP Grant Coordinator, Sacramento City Unified School District (CA), discussed the key topics relating to closing the unprecedented attendance gap in 2021.  

Chronic absenteeism is on the rise this year at a time when it is critical that students are present, engaged, and participating in their learning.

Sitting in an in-person classroom environment did not have the challenges presented in our remote learning environments where students sit at home in front of a computer screen.

Can we define attendance if students simply log onto their Google Classroom or submit an assignment? The presenters on this panel think not and recommend that schools begin to look beyond the traditional definition of attendance and measure attendance through the lens of student engagement and participation. Focusing on how to engage students more fully has the potential to reduce chronic absenteeism significantly.

Disturbing chronic absenteeism trends identified during this panel involve two groups: early learners and marginalized students. The early learners developmentally struggle with learning, engaging, and comprehending Zoom-type learning environments. Difficult socio-economic conditions at home challenge marginalized students to participate in online classes fully or at all. 

There are two strategies the presenters recommend to increase student attendance that results in engagement, connection, and educational growth. The first strategy is to examine what teachers are doing in the classroom. There are many challenges classroom teachers face with replicating brick-and-mortar learning environments in a virtual world. The entire school community must participate in self-reflection to determine what they can do differently to engage students. This reflection includes asking questions such as: “So if I’m in a teacher role, am I doing something in the classroom that’s resulting in students wanting to show up to class? Am I hitting home with students? Am I making sure that I have culturally relevant texts, and am I making sure that students have an experience that means something to him or her so they will want to come?” School administrators have the opportunities to work with teachers on redefining and reimaging education that is both engaging and inviting for students.

Engaging families can be another way to get students involved in our classrooms in more authentic ways. This partnership happens when trust is built between families and the school community through outreach and support and families see the school district as a resource to connect them to whatever materials, supplies, or services they need for their students. The presenters highly recommend exhausting every resource and connecting with outside assistance if necessary. 

The presenters agreed that why students are not coming to school has changed since schools transitioned to remote learning. The reasons uncovered by the types of supports utilized include sending social workers, teachers, and staff into homes to discover the challenges families and students have with the types of remote learning we are employing. Dr. Shaw-Rolle said the “most significant thing for us is the ‘whys’ and providing the right support to students to either get them back in school and face-to-face learning or respond to the types of learning they have to do in the remote environment.”