K-12 and higher ed institutions were caught off-guard by the sudden shift to online classes—most found themselves vulnerable and unprepared for cyber threats.

A recent slew of cyber attacks directed at school districts has led the US government to pass a new law called the K-12 Cybersecurity Act.

This new legislation mandates the Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) to create a cyber security toolkit for K-12 schools nationwide.

This landmark regulation will give schools across the nation the tools to protect themselves against cyber criminals and usher in a new era focused on cyber security awareness.

Let’s discuss which threats K-12 schools should be the wariest of and provide best practices to help them customize their cyber security awareness campaigns to their specific needs.

What is Cyber Security Awareness, and Why is it Important in Education?

Cyber Security awareness is the knowledge and understanding individuals have about protecting digital systems and data. It involves recognizing cyber threats, understanding associated risks, and adopting safe practices.

This awareness aims to defend both individuals and organizations from cyber incidents, typically nurtured through training and ongoing education.

This preparation is crucial in education since school districts are a treasure trove of personal data about staff, students, and their parents, making them a prime target for data breaches.

Additionally, most teachers are learning about several new technological platforms to perform their job, from teaching to grading and communicating with parents.

This type of situation is particularly dangerous from a cyber security standpoint since users might not be able to detect phishing or spoofing attempts due to being unfamiliar with the new platforms being introduced to them.

Common Cyber Incidents in the Education Sector

A recent survey revealed that most K-12 schools devote less than 8% of their funding to cyber security. Cyber attacks against these educational institutions aim to initiate a data breach via either phishing, website spoofing, malware, or a combination of these tactics.

Another common cyber attack in education is ransomware since schools are now heavily reliant on software to operate. Locking down their network can bring the entire institution to a crawl and force the administrators to comply with hackers’ demands.


Education software is often centered around notifications sent to teachers, from work being submitted by students to new messages from parents.

These notifications are almost always delivered via email, giving hackers a prime opportunity to mimic the emails sent by these platforms to trick teachers and school administrators into clicking on fraudulent links by mistake.


Digital transformation is synonymous with using new and unfamiliar platforms, which means users are often ill-equipped to recognize the subtle signs of spoofing. Something as simple as stolen login information can quickly bring an entire school network to its knees.


Schools are becoming increasingly reliant on software for their operations. Though this offers numerous benefits to students and teachers, it also positions educational institutions as tempting targets for cyber criminals, especially for ransomware attacks.

According to Intel, 44% of schools have experienced a ransomware attack, making it the most common type of cyber attack vector in education.

All these attacks can have damaging impacts on a school’s teaching effectiveness and cause lasting effects on student privacy in the event of a data breach. Thankfully, these cyber threats all have easily recognizable signs once teachers and administrators are properly trained to detect them.

Cyber security awareness training is often the only way to counter attacks like phishing by providing the required knowledge to your user base to detect that an attack is underway.

Best Practices and The Role of Cybersecurity Awareness Training

K-12 schools have evolved to be more technologically inclined to provide better education to their students. Their new reliance on software has changed how teachers do their job and given them new responsibilities.

Educators must lead by example by staying current on all cyber security trends. In most cases, a cyber security awareness program can dramatically reduce the impact of cyber attacks and often completely eliminate the potential risks.

Here are the three aspects that K-12 schools should focus on when it comes to cyber security awareness:

Password hygiene

Training teachers and administrators on the basics of password design is one of the most impactful steps toward a cyber security-aware culture. This practice protects you against brute force attacks and minimizes the ripple effects of a data breach.

In conjunction with this training, make sure the platforms you use have some form of multi-factor authentication. This simple step can be extremely effective and is a relatively low-cost implementation.

Phishing simulations

While phishing detection training is essential, nothing beats regular phishing simulations customized to the platforms your users work on every day. These tests will help you identify which users need additional attention while giving real-world practice to the ones who detect the cyber threat.

Incident response plan

The survey mentioned earlier identified that over a third of K-12 schools lacked an incident response plan. This document can be very simple and drafted in a day, but it can have a tremendous impact in the event of a breach.

Incident response plans are different for every situation and should be personalized for your needs. With cyber attacks, every minute counts, and users should know where and how to report any slip-ups.

The Impact of Cyber Security Awareness Training: A Case Study

A university boasting 40,000 students and nearly 7,000 staff members partnered with Fortra’s Terranova Security to build a cyber security awareness program.

Which such a large community, the odds of data breaches are exponential, and one single incident can have dramatic repercussions.

The program focused on phishing simulations and detailed pieces of training to instill a cyber security-aware culture across the organization. Launching these programs can be challenging since users are nervous about phishing tests and the potential repercussions.

While cyber security is often seen as daunting or tedious, deterring many from engaging, this university achieved a 42% participation rate by devising fun, engaging training with varied content types. The program was so successful with the teaching staff that it is now being rolled out to the entire student population.

The phishing tests were carefully executed, and clear communications were sent to the staff to quell their anxiety regarding this measure. Ultimately, the tests were highly successful and seen as a rewarding mini-game to put their new knowledge into play.

Read the full case study to learn more about the execution of their cyber security awareness program.

Cyber Security in Education: Final Takeaways

The digital transformation of educational institutions is only starting, and schools will rely much more on technology in the coming years. One of the most cost-efficient and robust measures you can implement to stay protected is cyber security awareness training.

These courses put cyber threats into context and alter your users’ behavior to make them act as your first line of defense.



To learn more about how educational institutions utilize Terranova Security’s training platform to engage users and protect their data, read our case study.