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Cyberattacks Increasingly Hobble Pandemic-Weary US Schools

For teachers at a middle school in New Mexico’s largest city, the first inkling of a widespread tech problem came during an early morning staff call.

On the video, there were shout-outs for a new custodian for his hard work, and the typical announcements from administrators and the union rep. But in the chat, there were hints of a looming crisis. Nobody could open attendance records, and everyone was locked out of class rosters and grades.

Albuquerque administrators later confirmed the outage that blocked access to the district’s student database — which also includes emergency contacts and lists of which adults are authorized to pick up which children — was due to a ransomware attack.

“I didn’t realize how important it was until I couldn’t use it,” said Sarah Hager, a Cleveland Middle School art teacher.

Cyberattacks like the one that canceled classes for two days in Albuquerque’s biggest school district have become a growing threat to U.S. schools, with several high-profile incidents reported since last year. And the coronavirus pandemic has compounded their effects: More money has been demanded, and more schools have had to shut down as they scramble to recover data or even manually wipe all laptops.

“Pretty much any way that you cut it, incidents have both been growing more frequent and more significant,” said Doug Levin, director of the K12 Security Information Exchange, a Virginia-based nonprofit that helps schools defend against cybersecurity risk.

Precise data is hard to come by since most schools are not required to publicly report cyberattacks. But experts say public school systems — which often have limited budgets for cybersecurity expertise — have become an inviting target for ransomware gangs.

The pandemic also has forced schools to turn increasingly toward virtual learning, making them more dependent on technology and more vulnerable to cyber-extortion. School systems that have had instruction disrupted include those in Baltimore County and Miami-Dade County, along with districts in New Jersey, Wisconsin and elsewhere.

Levin’s group has tracked well over 1,200 cyber security incidents since 2016 at public school districts across the country. They included 209 ransomware attacks, when hackers lock data up and charge to unlock it; 53 “denial of service” attacks, where attackers sabotage or slow a network by faking server requests; 156 “Zoombombing” incidents, where an unauthorized person intrudes on a video call; and more than 110 phishing attacks, where a deceptive message tricks a user to let a hacker into their network.

Recent attacks also come as schools grapple with multiple other challenges related to the pandemic. Teachers get sick, and there aren’t substitutes to cover them. Where there are strict virus testing protocols, there aren’t always tests or people to give them.

In New York City, an attack this month on third-party software vendor Illuminate Education didn’t result in canceled classes, but teachers across the city couldn’t access grades. Local media reported the outage added to stress for educators already juggling instruction with enforcing COVID-19 protocols and covering for colleagues who were sick or in quarantine.

Albuquerque Superintendent Scott Elder said getting all students and staff online during the pandemic created additional avenues for hackers to access the district’s system. He cited that as a factor in the Jan. 12 ransomware attack that canceled classes for some 75,000 students.

The cancellations — which Elder called “cyber snow days” — gave technicians a five-day window to reset the databases over a holiday weekend.

Elder said there’s no evidence student information was obtained by hackers. He declined to say whether the district paid a ransom but noted there would be a “public process” if it did.

Hager, the art teacher, said the cyberattack increased stress on campus in ways that parents didn’t see.

Fire drills were canceled because fire alarms didn’t work. Intercoms stopped working.

Nurses couldn’t find which kids were where as positive test results came in, Hager said. “So potentially there were students on campus that probably were sick.” It also appears the hack permanently wiped out a few days worth of attendance records and grades.

Edupoint, the vendor for Albuquerque’s student information database, called Synergy, declined to comment.

Many schools choose to keep attacks under wraps or release minimal information to prevent revealing additional weaknesses in their security systems.

“It’s very difficult for the school districts to learn from each other, because they’re really not supposed to talk to each other about it because you might share vulnerabilities,” Elder said.

Last year, the FBI issued a warning about a group called PYSA, or “Protect Your System, Amigo,” saying it was seeing an increase in attacks by the group on schools, colleges and seminaries. Other ransomware gangs include Conti, which last year demanded $40 million from Broward County Public Schools, one of the nation’s largest.

Most are Russian-speaking groups that are based in Eastern Europe and enjoy safe harbor from tolerant governments. Some will post files on the dark web, including highly sensitive information, if they don’t get paid.

While attacks on larger districts garner more headlines, ransomware gangs tended to target smaller school districts in 2021 than in 2020, according to Brett Callow, a threat analyst at the firm Emsisoft. He said that could indicate bigger districts are increasing their spending on cybersecurity while smaller districts, which have less money, remain more vulnerable.

A few days after Christmas, the 1,285-student district of Truth or Consequences, south of Albuquerque, also had its Synergy student information system shut down by a ransomware attack. Officials there compared it to having their house robbed.

“It’s just that feeling of helplessness, of confusion as to why somebody would do something like this because at the end of the day, it’s taking away from our kids. And to me that’s just a disgusting way to try to, to get money,” Superintendent Channell Segura said.

The school didn’t have to cancel classes because the attack happened on break, but the network remains down, including keyless entry locks on school building doors. Teachers are still carrying around the physical keys they had to track down at the start of the year, Segura said.

In October, President Joe Biden signed the K-12 Cybersecurity Act, which calls for the federal cyber security agency to make recommendations about how to help school systems better protect themselves.

New Mexico lawmakers have been slow to expand internet usage in the state, let alone support schools on cyber security. Last week, state representatives introduced a bill that would allocate $45 million to the state education department to build a cybersecurity program by 2027.

Ideas on how to prevent future hacks and recover from existing ones usually require more work from teachers.

In the days following the Albuquerque attack, parents argued on Facebook over why schools couldn’t simply switch to pen and paper for things like attendance and grades.

Hager said she even heard the criticism from her mother, a retired school teacher.

“I said, ‘Mom, you can only take attendance on paper if you have printed out your roster to begin with,'” Hager said.

Teachers could also keep duplicate paper copies of all records — but that would double the clerical work that already bogs them down.

In an era where administrators increasingly require teachers to record everything digitally, Hager says, “these systems should work.”

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US FDA Gives Full Approval to Moderna COVID-19 Vaccine

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration ((FDA)) Monday gave full approval to U.S. pharmaceutical company Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine, which will be marketed under the name Spikevax.

The vaccine has been widely distributed in the United States and around the world under the FDA’s emergency use authorization since December of 2020. It is the second COVID-19 vaccine the agency has fully approved, after Pfizer’s vaccine received the designation in August of 2021.

In a statement, acting FDA Commissioner Janet Woodcock said full authorization of the vaccine is an important step in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. She said that while hundreds of millions of doses of the Moderna shot have been administered under the emergency use authorization, she understands “for some individuals, FDA approval of this vaccine may instill additional confidence in making the decision to get vaccinated.”

Woodcock said the public can be assured that the Moderna vaccine “meets the FDA’s high standards for safety, effectiveness and manufacturing quality required of any vaccine approved for use in the United States.”

The Moderna vaccine has been approved for use in more than 70 countries including Britain, Canada, Japan and those in the European Union.

Some information for this report was provided by the Associated Press and Reuters.

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Holocaust-Era Letters Prompt Writer to Dive Into Family’s History

Eleanor Reissa’s mother and father survived the Nazi Holocaust in Europe during the 1940’s. After the war but before they were married, they wrote letters to each other. Those letters led Eleanor on a journey to learn about her parents’ past. The result of that journey was just released in book form. Victoria Kupchinetsky has the story from Cold Spring, New York. Camera – Michael Eckels.

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Military to Aid Outback Town Cut Off by Australian Floods

The Australian air force is preparing to deliver 20 tons of emergency supplies to remote communities cut off by flood waters. Traffic has been disrupted on the main highway and railway between Adelaide in South Australia and Darwin, the capital city of the Northern Territory.    

Heavy rain and storms in recent days have damaged freight routes in South Australia. 

A 14-day major emergency was declared Friday by state authorities. It gives the police special powers to ensure food reaches isolated communities. 

South Australia has a population of 1.7 million who are already under a major emergency declaration for COVID-19. The state was also badly impacted by the Black Summer bushfires of 2019-20, although the floods have occurred away from the areas worst-hit by the fires. 

The area is expected to receive yet more rain, with up to 200 millimeters forecast in the coming days.  

A military plane is scheduled to land Monday in the outback settlement of Coober Pedy to deliver food and other essentials.  

The town is 850 kilometers north of Adelaide on the Stuart Highway and is known as the “opal capital of the world” because of its mining resources. The impact on mining and farming might not be known for days. 

Tim Jackson, the administrator of the Coober Pedy Council, told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. that the arrival of supplies would ease community concerns. 

“People are pretty relaxed generally speaking, I think, and particularly now that they know there is a significant food drop being made today. It is just a bit frustrating. It is just the unknown about when the highway is going to be opened again. (I) understand that it is the first time both the rail and road have been impacted simultaneously,” Jackson said.

Flooding in South Australia and the disruption to freight routes have led to shortages on supermarket shelves in the Northern Territory and Western Australia. 

Higher-than-average rainfall this summer is associated with a La Niña weather system, which can also produce a higher-than-normal number of tropical cyclones. 

The naturally occurring system develops when strong winds move the warm surface waters of the Pacific Ocean from South America towards Indonesia. 

In Australia, the La Niña system increases the likelihood of cooler daytime temperatures, reducing the risk of bushfires and heatwaves. 

Conservationists are warning that the impact of climate change will increase the incidence and intensity of “extreme rainfall events” in Australia. They have said that the risks of flooding are exacerbated when the atmosphere is “made warmer and wetter by climate change.” 

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Cincinnati Bengals, Los Angeles Rams Advance to US Pro Football Championship Game

The Cincinnati Bengals will face the Los Angeles Rams in the 56th edition of the Super Bowl, the championship game of the U.S. National Football League and one of the premier championship events in all of professional sports.   

The visiting Cincinnati Bengals came back from a 21-10 halftime deficit to post a 27-24 overtime win over the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC (American Football Conference) Championship game. Kansas City appeared to be on their way to a third consecutive Super Bowl appearance when they posted 21 quick points in the first half, led by superstar quarterback Patrick Mahomes. But the Bengals took command in the second half, thanks to a stellar defensive effort and clutch play by second-year quarterback Joe Burrow, taking a narrow 24-21 lead in the fourth quarter. 

The Chiefs tied the game at the end of regulation after a 44-yard three-point field goal by placekicker Harrison Butker, and won the chance to get the ball to begin the overtime period. But Bengals defensive back Vonn Bell intercepted a Mahomes pass to receiver Tyreek Hill, allowing Burrows to lead Cincinnati on a long drive capped by the game-winning 31-yard field goal by placekicker Evan McPherson. 

The Rams earned their way to the Super Bowl with a 20-17 win over their in-state California rival San Francisco 49ers in the NFC (National Football Conference) Championship on their home field. Los Angeles was led by quarterback Matthew Stafford, who finished with 337 yards and two touchdowns, both of them to star receiver Cooper Kupp, who finished with 142 receiving yards.   

San Francisco held a narrow 17-7 lead early in the fourth quarter when Stafford led the Rams on three drives to go ahead. Los Angeles sealed the victory when the defense staged a furious pass rush on 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, who threw a desperation pass that was intercepted by defensive back Travin Howard. 

The two franchises will play for the Vince Lombardi Trophy on Sunday, February 13 on the Rams’ home field of SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles, making it the first team to host both a conference championship game and the Super Bowl in the same season. This is the second Super Bowl appearance in five seasons under Rams coach Sean McVay, while Cincinnati is making its first Super Bowl appearance in 31 years, bringing an end to numerous seasons filled with either losing teams or promising ones that failed to live up their potential, earning them the nickname “Bungles.” 

The first Super Bowl in 1967 was a matchup of the NFL’s Green Bay Packers against the Kansas City Chiefs of the then-rival American Football League. The two leagues merged in 1970 under the NFL banner, with the AFL forming the American Football Conference and the old NFL forming the National Football Conference.   

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37 Olympic Athletes, Officials Test Positive Sunday in China

Olympic officials in China say 37 people, including athletes and team officials, tested positive for the coronavirus Sunday. On Saturday, 34 people connected with The Games also received positive results.  

The Pacific Maritime Association says, according to a New York Times report, that more West Coast longshoremen “contracted the coronavirus in the last month than in all of last year.” 

The newspaper said last year the association recorded 1,624 coronavirus infections among the dockworkers, while at least 1,850 cases have been reported within the last month.  

Archbishop Chrystostomos II, the head of the Cyprus Orthodox Christian Church, said Sunday on state broadcaster CyBC, that he will suspend 12 priests in the diocese who have refused to adhere to his calls to get vaccinated. 

The religious leader warned that the suspensions could last as long as six months and could possibly lead to the priests being defrocked.  

Archbishop Chrystostomos said the priests’ insubordination was “unheard of,” according to an Associated Press report.  

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has tested negative for COVID-19 after being exposed to it on a flight to Auckland. A government spokesman said Ardern will remain in isolation until Tuesday to adhere to public health guidelines.  

The Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center said early Monday that it has recorded 374.8 million global COVID infections and over 5 million deaths. The center said almost 10 billion vaccines have been administered.  

Some information in this report came from the Associated Press and Reuters.  

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Beijing Seals Off More Residential Areas, Reports 12 Cases

Beijing officials said Sunday they sealed off several residential communities in the city’s northern district after two cases of COVID-19 were found.

Residents in the Anzhenli neighborhood in Chaoyang district were sealed off on Saturday, and will not be allowed to leave their compound.

Beijing is on high alert as it prepares to host the Olympic Games opening on Friday.

While the cases are low compared to other countries in the region, China has double down on its “zero-tolerance” policy, which includes breaking the chain of transmission as soon as it is found.

The city is also setting up 19 points in the area to test residents every day until Friday, officials said at a briefing on the pandemic, according to state-backed Beijing News.

The Chinese capital reported a total of 12 cases of COVID-19 between 4 p.m. Saturday and 4 p.m. Sunday, said Pang Xinghuo, the vice head of the Beijing Center for Disease Prevention and Control. All those cases came from people who were already under some kind of pandemic control measures.

The city conducted multiple rounds of testing for millions of residents this past week in Fengtai district, where some residential compounds were locked down.

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2 NY Nurses Allegedly Forged COVID Vaccination Cards, Made $1.5 Million

New York authorities have arrested two Long Island nurses who officials say made more than $1.5 million by forging COVID-19 vaccination cards.

Julie DeVuono, the owner of Wild Child Pediatric Healthcare and her employee, Marissa Urraro, have been charged with felony forgery, authorities say. DeVuono was also charged with offering a false instrument for filing.

Officials say the two women entered the false information on the cards into New York’s immunization database.

The Suffolk County district attorney’s office said the women sold the fake cards for $220 for adults and $85 for children.

Officials say about $900,000 in cash was seized from DeVuono’s home.

Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand’s prime minister, is in self-isolation until Tuesday after a possible COVID exposure on a flight to Auckland, officials said Saturday.

“The prime minister is asymptomatic and is feeling well,” her office said. She is scheduled to be tested for the virus Sunday.

India’s health ministry said Sunday that 234,281 people had tested positive for COVID in the previous 24-hour period.

Meanwhile, more than 100,000 daily cases of the coronavirus were reported in Russia for the first time Saturday as the highly contagious omicron variant spreads throughout the country. The government’s coronavirus task force reported a record high 113,122 new cases, a sevenfold increase from earlier in January.

 

 

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