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Baltimore County Public Schools Hit By Ransomware Attack

Baltimore County Public Schools

Baltimore County Public Schools have been hit by a ransomware attack, county officials announced Wednesday morning. The attack, which shut down the system’s network information systems, forced school administrators to cancel classes for 115,000 students the day before Thanksgiving break.

Officials said it’s unclear when classes may resume. School officials are working with investigators from the county, the state and the FBI.

Mychael Dickerson, the school system’s chief of staff said the attack apparently occurred during Tuesday night’s school board meeting. It has shuttered the school district’s website, email system and grading system. Meanwhile, school officials have closed schools and offices and are asking faculty, staff, students and anyone with county school system devices not to use them.

Elena Lomicky, a kindergarten teacher at Villa Cresta Elementary School in Parkville, was preparing for a virtual parent-teacher conference when she learned of the attack.

“If it had been any other year, my panic level would have been a lot higher,” she said. “Honestly, I was like, ‘oh, of course there’s a cyberattack!’ ”

BCPS went online in the spring as the coronavirus pandemic slammed the country. They have stayed that way with no formal plans to reopen. 

“I don’t know how we’re going to navigate this,” Lomicky said. “My hope is that we will be able to get back into our virtual world as soon as possible.”

While it’s too early to say for certain, the attack looks serious, said Avi Rubin, a computer science professor at Johns Hopkins University.

“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,” he said.

Schools aren’t traditional ransomware targets. But as many remain online, Rubin said hackers have more opportunities to infiltrate their networks.

“Everybody is now using either Zoom or Microsoft teams or some form of remote communication,” he said. “And that includes students learning in school.” 

There have been at least 30 ransomware attacks on schools since the pandemic began. This one has left more than 115,000 students, who can’t enter their classrooms due to the virus, without a way to learn.

At a news conference Wednesday afternoon, County Superintendent Darryl Williams said he’s unsure when exactly schools can reopen.

“We’ll be providing updates through the senior leaders of this county, as well as the board,” Williams said. “We don’t know at this point of a timeline, but we’re listening to our experts to guide us in the proper manner.”  

Cybersecurity experts, including Rubin, generally say ransoms should not be paid. Williams declined to provide any specific ransom details.

County spokeswoman Dori Henry said there is no “reason to believe that Baltimore County Government systems have been compromised, but the County’s Information Technology team is closely inspecting our network and all devices out of an abundance of caution, and has put in place additional security measures.”

Henry said the county will work with BCPS to address remote learning.

The attack is the region’s second in less than two years. In May of 2019, a similar ransomware attack halted Baltimore City’s digital government services, such as water bill payment portals and lien systems.  It cost the city millions of dollars to recover.

Lomicky of Villa Cresta Elementary said she can’t believe she’s nostalgic for virtual learning of all things.

“I miss my kiddos,” she said. “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.”

Emily Sullivan is a city hall reporter at WYPR, where she covers all things Baltimore politics. She joined WYPR after reporting for NPR’s national airwaves. There, she was a reporter for NPR’s news desk, business desk and presidential conflicts of interest team. Sullivan won a national Edward R. Murrow Award for an investigation into a Trump golf course's finances alongside members of the Embedded team. She has also won awards from the Chesapeake Associated Press Broadcasters Association for her use of sound and feature stories. She has provided news analysis on 1A, The Takeaway, Here & Now and All Things Considered.