TUSD’s Cyber Shutdown: Staffers say students lost ground and the state’s effort to protect all Arizona schools

Published: May. 4, 2023 at 10:27 PM MST
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TUCSON, Ariz. (13 News) - Students in Tucson Unified School District lost ground during the recent ransomware attack. That’s what some staffers are telling us, but the district isn’t saying how much.

As TUSD continues to recover from the cyber attack that shut them down on January, 13 News is investigating the true impact of the attack.

The district has said it took about ten days to restore the system to working order. And in that time, staffers reported students lost ground.

Teachers are on a strict schedule to meet academic requirements and 13 News Investigates has been told it can be tough to recover from an attack that has a lot of firepower.

IT breaches by cybercriminals often happen rapidly, like a light switch turned off at a moment’s notice. And getting it turned back on doesn’t happen overnight.

“But students need to learn every day. And the infrastructure of the schools have to maintain every single day. And that is the scenario that is troubling for schools,” said Pima County Superintendent Dustin Williams.

The feds report loss of learning happens, ranging from three days to three weeks, and full recovery time ranges from two to nine months.

The district had stressed after the attack, learning in classrooms continued.

TUSD COO Blaine Young said, “Instruction never stopped. We did not close a single school.”

But some TUSD teachers and leaders told 13 News Investigates that they didn’t really know what to do.

Many teachers suddenly couldn’t access their teaching plans, lessons, digital materials, grading, and attendance stored in the system.

The district had to shut down emails, so teachers couldn’t communicate with staff and leaders. And the main system used to email students and parents didn’t return until a month later.

A staffer who wants to remain anonymous explained the impact.

When asked how much learning is lost in that amount of time, the staffer answered, “A lot. I don’t know to what extent, but a lot of learning didn’t happen during that.”

13 News Investigates asked Young whether he would agree there was a disruption. He answered, “There have been lessons learned, certainly at the campus level and the classroom level at the district office, and we are in the midst of distilling that and making sure that we apply those lessons.”

Those lessons are applied for when the next attack happens. The district has said is certain it’ll be hit again by cybercriminals.

TUSD is now working with the State Department of Homeland Security to help prevent cybercriminals from crippling its system again.

“We’re working very closely with them to deploy all of the tools and services that we provide,” said Ryan Murray, deputy director of cyber command overseeing the statewide Cyber Readiness Program.

He said the brutal attack on TUSD sent shockwaves throughout the entire education sector, triggering a call to action.

“I know Governor Hobbs supports this program significantly. And I know this is near and dear to her heart supporting K-12 school districts,” he said.

That support is critical because it will take more money to get TUSD quickly up to speed and all the districts and schools throughout the state.

Last year, Arizona Homeland Security devoted 10 million general fund dollars to give all local government entities no-cost cybersecurity tools.

Murray said, “I don’t think something like this has ever been done before.”

He’s trying to build a “collective” defense.

His strategy includes having the state buy licenses in bulk from cybersecurity vendors to decrease costs.

“They only operate in the numbers of thousands,” said Murray, “So it’s something we’re able to provide these capabilities that these school districts just wouldn’t be able to have otherwise.”

He explained it is the first real year of rolling out the tools and evaluating their effectiveness, making it hard to estimate the cost.

“It’s certainly possible that it’s going to be an additional tens of millions of dollars to pull this all together,” said Murray.

When 13 News Investigates asked how long he thinks it will take, he replied, “So obviously there’s a heavy lift here and a pretty steep learning curve, which is why we’re trying to bring everyone together to join in the community to do it together.”

TUSD tells us it’ll cost millions for the district to get up to speed, and it needs to act now.

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