Nan Austin

Phish bait: As kids get laptops, how do schools keep them safe in cyberspace?

As the latest cyberattack spread Monday, the ransomware targeting Microsoft, Hughson Unified was among the school districts breathing easy. The 1,760 laptops in the hands of the most phishing-vulnerable folks in the district would be fine. The kids have Chromebooks.

And when it does get hit by a cyberattack, as it did in recent weeks, the company’s full resources deploy, said Ross Middle School teacher Jeff Welch. “It was fixed the same day. They restored everything within hours,” he said.

That security matters as schools move toward computers for all, bringing tens of thousands more laptops online. Worse, those thousands of devices are in the hands of the most inexperienced, curious and utterly fearless among us.

What could go wrong?

News reports tie the WannaCrypt hack to Microsoft Windows vulnerabilities the company sent out a patch for weeks ago. Those who got hit had not updated, or were using older versions of its Windows operating system the company no longer sends out patches for, or were using pirated software.

But Modesto City Schools, which uses PCs with Windows operating systems, had no issues, said Cindy Minter, MCS senior director of information and technology services, on Tuesday. Davis High is the only Modesto campus with universal laptops. Next year, however, all its high schools will have PCs.

“We push out Windows security updates to all staff/student devices on a regular schedule. Due to the nature of the latest WannaCrypt ransomware attacks, we pushed out additional security updates shortly after being released by Microsoft yesterday (Monday),” Minter said via email.

Chromebooks are fundamentally different. They use a Google cloud-based operating system updated constantly behind the scenes. It never goes out of date, never requires buying a new version and never relies on young users to make a fix.

There are tradeoffs, Microsoft fans point out. Without that on-machine software, Google computers need an Internet connection to be fully functional. Kids have to download texts and homework before they go home if they have no home connection.

Hughson gets around that by providing cell-phone data connections to 1 in 5 of its 475 middle and high school families.

“If you’re going to be sending home a project, but there’s no connectivity, that’s completely unfair,” said Assistant Superintendent Brenda Smith.

The working world still uses Microsoft Office software, which has more computing muscle than the free Google counterparts. But all that muscle also has tradeoffs. Office programs are more difficult to learn, require saving changes before closing, and do not seamlessly accommodate multiple, simultaneous users.

Those last are Google strong points, as is its price point: free. For schools, Google also offers free, unlimited storage and a suite of classroom-tailored apps created and updated with teacher input.

Chromebooks started out as cheap and, critics said, flimsy. But a range of manufacturers now produce sturdier models. Hughson leases tough-clad Dell units for $125 a year on a three-year plan. Families pay $35 a year for no-deductible insurance that covers breakdowns, cracked screens and utter destruction.

Where Office is ubiquitous in the business realm, Google has become the premier presence in education, with individual teachers all over logging on for its classroom organizing app.

Hughson Unified, however, went all in. The district has been invited to be a Google Reference District because of its wide use of Google applications in the classroom.

The district looked before it leaped into student technology, Smith said, investing in staff training before hardware and letting enthusiastic teachers lead the way. District staff, too, has shifted away from Microsoft Office programs to G-Suite, the Google platform.

Welch is one of four California teachers tapped as Google Innovators this year. He is working with other teachers on better ways to make the tide of computer-generated testing data usable for teachers by developing a new app with Google.

“As teachers, we have a million data points – how do you process that?” he asked.

Not every Hughson teacher embraces the change as Welch has, but with help as close as the lunch room, more are getting comfortable with the shift. Some 18 percent of the staff has earned at least one Google for Education certification.

“Google (web)sites is so easy, I felt like this is something I can do – because I can,” said Hughson Elementary third-grade teacher Jamie Mankins, who had her students create their own pages to archive a portfolio of their work.

Hughson handed out heavy-duty Chromebooks to grades six through 12 this school year, sending its middle and high school computer carts to the younger grades. Kids there use the computers in class but do not take them home.

“Education apps have transformed a lot of things,” said Ellen Lowe, a second-grade teacher. “I think this is a digital generation.”

Though she still uses pen and paper, and certainly printed books, Lowe said she finds that online quizzes and teaching tools get immediate attention.

“All of a sudden, they’re very interested,” she said. “There are just so many more resources out there.” Resources, she added, that were free. “It’s a lot cheaper for me.”

The best part of technology, Mankins said, is how she can make one lesson fit every kid in her class. Online lessons can use pictures and simplified reading levels and read text aloud to students with disabilities or limited English. An excelling student can get an expanded lesson.

“It’s a good way to make it so everybody has a much better chance of succeeding,” Mankins said. “My room’s a mix of tech and what we’ve done before. We’re just at a place where we’re trying to make the two worlds work together.”

Hughson has taken a conservative approach, filtering out Netflix and other distractions for its devises – not just its internet. Even at home, kids cannot use them to surf unfettered. Email for all grades can be only to and from other Hughson Unified users, making phishing schemes not impossible but certainly more difficult to pull off.

As with corporate accounts, Hughson student emails can be monitored, reducing problems with online bullying, said Ross Principal Ryan Smith. “It’s all transparent. It’s all cards face up,” he said.

Not using technology, Smith said, is not an option. “These tools are part of student learning – as is the teacher, as is the pencil,” he said.

“Schools have been very successful at training students for a 19th-century world,” added Welch, a history teacher, “But we don’t live in that world anymore.”