The 2020-21 school year is going to be unlike any other—one full of new experiences for students, teachers, and parents. But one thing is certain: no one knows exactly how the school year will play out as it unfolds. In some parts of the country, schools are opening for full-time in-person learning, while others have moved their classrooms online for the foreseeable future. Some schools offer a mix of both plans with students in smaller classrooms a few days a week and learning virtually on other days.
Many things are up in the air, but one thing is clear this year: more students will depend upon virtual learning than ever before. During these trying times, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) offers some clarity. CISA’s STOP. THINK. CONNECT.™ Campaign provides valuable resources and recommendations for students and teachers. These suggestions include proactive steps to secure online conferencing and safeguard information, with concrete do’s and don’ts to help keep learners safe online:
- DO use parental controls. Parental controls are a healthy and discreet way of protecting children from online threats like dangerous websites, malware, bullying, and unwelcome contact with strangers. Strong parental controls also allow parents to block websites and issue alerts when private information like phone numbers, addresses (physical and email), and credit card numbers appear on a student’s computer or device.
- DO use a VPN. Take the security of online learning to the next level with a VPN (virtual private network). A VPN creates a private pipeline between computers and online services. The data traveling through this pipeline is encrypted, so all your online activities are secure from cybercriminals, keeping students and their information safe.
- DO use multi-factor authentication. A password isn’t enough defense these days, so use multi-factor authentication (MFA) whenever possible. MFA requires more than one form of ID to log into a website. For example, in addition to a password, use a security question or a texted/emailed code to verify your identity when logging in.
- DO use a password manager. It’s good to have a variety of hard-to-guess passwords, but they can be hard to remember when you create unique passwords for each site. A password manager can help keep track of your passwords. Password managers are encrypted and many offer family plans, so family members can safely share passwords to common accounts like those on streaming services.
It is also important to bear in mind some things not to do that will further strengthen online security:
- DON’T open unknown email attachments. Just as parents and guardians teach their children not to answer the door when a stranger knocks, they also shouldn’t open strange email attachments. These can contain ransomware and other kinds of malicious software. Unless a trusted person or source confirms that they are sending an attachment, students shouldn’t open it.
- DON’T open links from untrusted or unknown sources. As with attachments, make it clear to online learners that if there is a link in an email, text, or other message from an unknown source, they shouldn’t open it. Simple rule of thumb: If it doesn’t look legit, it probably isn’t.
By following these simple steps, we can help our students have a safe learning environment, no matter what form it takes. Be sure to check out CISA’s student-parent resources mentioned above, and visit schoolsafety.gov to learn more about how you can help create a safe and rewarding school year, whether as a parent, teacher, student, or faculty member.