Back to School – Remote Learning Security Amid Covid-19 Pandemic

Just as in every year, September marks the end of summer and the beginning of the school year. But whereas in years past the biggest issue facing many students was making sure they had the right gear or remembering the combination on their locker, the school looks very different in the time of COVID.

One of the hot-button topics in the media right now is the home-schooling of students during the coronavirus pandemic. It has proven a divisive issue in the political arena, and though the school year is starting, it does not look like there will be an ultimate resolution anytime soon. Regardless of whether the decision comes now through government-ordered school and college shutdowns or through the individual choices of parents, millions of students will likely be engaged in remote learning over the coming months. The home-schooling effort is undertaken to keep students safe from corona; with it, however, comes various threats to the online safety of children as well as wider cybersecurity issues.

It has been well documented how cybercriminals have pounced upon the upheaval caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. Fraudsters see the disruption as an opportunity, with confusion counted among their staunchest allies. Cyberattacks have increased in 2020 – fivefold in some cases – and the trend towards learning from home, and the upheaval it is expected to cause, will have been noticed by cybercriminals.

Indeed, parents should not complacently think that schools and school kids are off-limits for cybercriminals simply because they are not traditional targets like banks, government agencies, and businesses. Last year, the New York Times reported that school districts were a new favorite target of hackers. The reason? “Schools handle a lot of personal data and may not have strong technology teams, leaving them vulnerable.” Relevant threats for students will likely increase as the classroom moves to the home.

Risk factors will overlap

Risk factors and their impact are, of course, different for each age group; they also vary depending on the type of educational institution. Mastering reading and writing skills, the mainstay of early learning, is crucial to young kids. Yet the impact for a third-grader missing a day of classes due to a computer virus wreaking havoc on the family computer doesn’t compare to the effect of a college student getting hacked in the middle of a final exam.

Classes over Zoom, which seems to be the de-facto tool for remote studies for all students, from elementary-age to those in university, have come under a lot of scrutiny, with concerns raised about the privacy offered by the video communications platform. Yet other platforms raise concerns as well.

Parents who need to go out to work and leave young children to learn at home must take a different approach to cybersecurity than college students who have suddenly been forced to study off-campus. But, then again, some risks are universal and apply wherever and however, kids go back to school.  

The youngest kids learning remotely

At the elementary school level, the risks for home learning are centered around the increased use of computers by children. Computers are essential for connecting with the rest of the classroom, submitting work and accessing educational resources. It can be assumed that as schools attempt to engage young children via technology, they will also endeavor to keep them safe, as in general, class activities are monitored by teachers. Moreover, schools will have strict controls – at least they should – on what can be accessed by students. Nevertheless, parents should check with the schools to understand what can be done at home to keep kids safe and all issues related to cyber breaches at bay

One apparent security risk specific to elementary school kids is their limited ability to recognize suspicious material, especially true for the youngest students. You can check out ZoneAlarm’s comprehensive guide to keeping children safe online to give you a broad understanding of the issues, but one of the most fundamental areas for concern is kids’ capacity to recognize threats. Phishing – the practice of sending fraudulent links by email or other messaging platforms to obtain personal information – has become incredibly sophisticated, and scammers can easily make clicking a link seem attractive – or even required by teachers.

Besides staying nearby, an important first step in the safety of young students who are studying over the internet: talk to them about the potential dangers, encouraging them to show you anything suspicious. Another crucial step: protect your computer, so your kids are shielded even before they log on.

High schoolers likely more digitally savvy

As for high school students, the vast majority now spend several hours a day online. Despite their experience, the risk of clicking a malicious phishing link is present, and there is evidence that hackers tailor phishing campaigns to target kids of high school age. Social media, chat rooms, and gaming websites – which schools will often ban when kids are on campus – are a particular culprit. Some scams, like the “Instagram Ugly List,” prove to be especially dangerous. Will the risk increase when high school kids are studying from home? While schools can be easily overwhelmed by cybersecurity issues in normal times, they do attempt to cocoon students when they access the internet through the schools’ servers and devices. Hackers, always trying to keep one step ahead, will be aware that students might be more exposed when doing schoolwork from home, leaping on the opportunity.

It’s often a difficult subject for parents to broach, but teenagers are particularly vulnerable to attacks centered around sexual exploitation. As we have seen in the media, the problem can lie with fellow students obtaining, for example, compromising photos, but there is also a concerted campaign by online criminals to target teens. Sextortion scams are sophisticated attempts to blackmail, preying on privacy and fear, and young people can be especially vulnerable. Hackers can often be successful in duping children even when compromising material does not exist.

As for ransomware attacks and high school kids engaged in at-home learning, one of the main issues, perhaps ironically, is that teenagers are digitally savvy when trying to circumvent parental controls. A report by Government Technology last year discussed how teenagers will use Web proxy and rogue VPN tools to bypass the security protocols set by schools, and that leaves them vulnerable to ransomware attacks. When parents are attempting to school from home, it’s almost inevitable that some kids will try to bypass parental controls. Parents can’t monitor what kids are doing all the time, so in addition to installing powerful anti-virus software and other computer protection, as with younger kids, it’s worth having a conversation about the dangers they might encounter.

Robust security software on and off-campus

The cybersecurity risks for college students will differ somewhat from the threats facing younger children. One crucial issue that arises is the use of public Wi-Fi, leaving devices vulnerable to a host of cyberattacks. Because of the college dorm closures across the United States, many college-age students will now be studying at home or from off-campus apartments. Whether prompted by a desire to escape the family home or just or meet up with fellow students in cafés, school cafeterias, public libraries, or even the nearby park, students will need to consider computer safety wherever they are working online. The use of a VPN is one means of combatting the threat of logging in over public Wi-Fi, but robust security software like that offered by ZoneAlarm is even more critical to eliminate those risks.

Additionally, college students are purveyors of information. Required by professors or sought for personal reasons, students regularly download apps, videos, and documents. It only takes one malicious program to cause a mid-semester nightmare.

There are many reasons for higher education institutions to be in the crosshairs for hackers, but it’s worth remembering that individual students can be targeted too. Indeed, something like a college dissertation, while not seeming like an obvious target for hackers, could be a particularly useful item to hold in a ransomware attack. Colleges and universities will, of course, attempt to provide students with online security measures when logged in to university servers, but it is advantageous to ensure that cybersecurity measures are implemented when engaging in remote studying both on and off-campus.

Above we have pointed out a few of the security risks present for school kids and college students studying remotely in the coming months. In truth, cybercriminals are clever students, ever vigilant, astute at finding opportunities. Nevertheless, parents can take steps to protect kids by downloading ZoneAlarm Extreme Security for devices at home. The award-winning multi-device software offers 100% virus-free protection guaranteed, and it’s the best way to give yourself peace of mind over threats like phishing and ransomware. In addition, remember to educate yourself and your children on the risks of studying online in the current climate – a short conversation on the facts could prevent a lot of problems further down the line.

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