AILSA CHANG, HOST:
All learning stopped in Baltimore County public schools this morning. Teachers and students were locked out of their online courses when a ransomware attack halted all of the district's digital systems. Emily Sullivan at member station WYPR reports.
EMILY SULLIVAN, BYLINE: Elena Lomicky thought she'd seen all possible remote learning blunders. But then, as the kindergarten teacher was preparing for a virtual parent-teacher conference, she learned of the attacks.
ELENA LOMICKY: I think if it had been any other year, my panic level probably would have been a lot higher. Honestly, I was like, of course there's a cyberattack.
SULLIVAN: She and other teachers are shut out of their grading portals, email and even their phones.
LOMICKY: I don't know how we're going to navigate this. My hope is that we will be able to get back into our virtual world as soon as possible.
SULLIVAN: Imagine if thieves snuck into school headquarters, loaded up every single document and then put those files in a warehouse only they can enter. That's how ransomware works - it encrypts systems, and only the hackers have the key. Avi Rubin is a computer science professor at Johns Hopkins University. He says while it's too early to say for certain, the attacks look serious.
AVI RUBIN: 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.
SULLIVAN: Schools are not traditional ransomware targets, but as many remain online, Rubin says hackers have more opportunities to infiltrate them.
RUBIN: Everybody is now using either Zoom or Microsoft Teams or some form of remote communication, and that includes students learning in school.
SULLIVAN: There's been at least 30 ransomware attacks on schools this year. This one has left more than 115,000 children who can't enter their classrooms due to the pandemic without a way to learn. Lomicky says she can't believe she's nostalgic for virtual learning.
LOMICKY: 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.
SULLIVAN: Baltimore County school officials say they're working with the FBI, and they don't plan on paying ransom.
For NPR News, I'm Emily Sullivan in Baltimore.
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