Snowy dunes (Credit: Ant Rozetsky)

Albuquerque schools are having a cybersecurity snow day—and they aren't alone

Public schools in Albuquerque, New Mexico are closed today as the School District responds to a cyberattack—giving roughly a quarter of the state’s K-12 students what amounts to a cybersecurity snow day while the School District works to restore access to key systems. 

In fact, the District directly compared the shutdown to a weather closure in an announcement posted online Wednesday, with administrators writing that the days off “will need to be made up at the end of the school year, just as snow days would be.”

And Albuquerque is far from alone—many educational institutions are now finding that they need to now also need to plan for what some call “cyber days” in case their systems are attacked. 

Policies for weather closures vary, with areas that see more extreme weather often already having extra days built into their academic calendar. Approaches to handling cybersecurity related closures also vary, but the attacks are increasingly disrupting instruction. 

A ransomware attack delayed the opening of public schools in Hartford, CT in September of 2020 while another closed Baltimore County Public Schools’s then entirely online classes for several days around Thanksgiving that year. Haverhill Public Schools in Massachusetts were also forced to temporarily close due a cyberattack last April. So was Howard University in Washington, DC last September. 

The details of the attack in Albuquerque are still hazy. The district’s public statement said the attack “compromised some systems that could impact teaching, learning, and student safety,” including the student information system used to track things like attendance and contact parents in emergencies. The District did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the situation. 

Albuquerque Public Schools is the largest School District in the state of New Mexico and serves over 73,000 students across 144 schools. It’s also the largest employer in the city, employing more than 12,000 people full-time—including roughly 5,500 teachers.

The FBI says the attack does not appear related to another recent cyberattack on Bernalillo County, where Albuquerque is located, according to the Albuquerque Journal. In that incident, county government buildings and public offices were closed across several cities in the region after a ransomware attack crippled the county’s IT network.

While school closures due to inclimate weather are often eagerly anticipated by students and fretted over by parents, they can at least be usually forecasted along with the weather and are only a temporary disruption.

But with ransomware or other types of digital attacks that infiltrate educational systems, there can be much more long lasting damage—even if students end up back in class quickly. For example, there can be additional costs related to securing sensitive information about students and restoring or replacing information on systems that were compromised—including things like teacher lesson plans that may have taken years to develop.

Baltimore County Public Schools spent at least $8.1 million responding to the attack that hit their systems and was still in recovery mode a year later, local NPR affiliate WYPR reported. 

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Andrea Peterson

Andrea Peterson

(they/them) is a longtime cybersecurity journalist who cut their teeth covering technology policy at ThinkProgress (RIP) and The Washington Post before doing deep-dive public records investigations at the Project on Government Oversight and American Oversight.