There is a day in our district’s history that will be etched in the minds of Las Cruces Public Schools for quite some time. It was Oct. 29, 2019. I had been on the job as the interim superintendent for about two months when, in a matter of hours, our entire digital infrastructure at LCPS was swept away.
Our IT director, Matt Dawkins, got a call around 7 a.m. that one of our employees was having trouble gaining access to the server. “It’s ransomware,” Matt said. By 7:30, it was confirmed that 90 percent of our server systems were crippled. Our financial systems, student information, printers – all data storage was out of reach.
To contain the problem, we had to shut off internet service to our entire district for weeks. Media teachers, who rely on digital technology to fulfill lesson plans and projects, resorted to storyboards and other creative assignments. For the first time in decades, teachers were left to lead their students with chalkboards and overhead projectors. They had to take attendance by hand and record grades in an old-fashioned gradebook. Thankfully, within three days our essential personnel, whose digital access was vital in keeping people paid and bills paid, were back online. We didn’t miss a payroll and we paid all our bills on time.
Matt’s team of 21 people worked 18-hour days through Thanksgiving, Christmas, and beyond, scrubbing more than 30,000 devices that needed to be rebuilt. If there was one bright spot in that dark moment, it was a pilot project the Technology Services team created that would essentially erase and rebuild a computer in a matter of minutes. The machine used an imaging distribution point that could clean up to 300 devices in an hour. They named it The Liquidator, a nod to the personnel that were called in to clean up the 1986 nuclear disaster in Chernobyl. During this process, all outdated computers were identified for replacement and we started ordering thousands of new computers for teachers and students.
We thought the ransomware attack was our disaster for the year, but just when we started to rise from the ashes, the global pandemic thrust us into another crisis. It was as if the ransomware was a trial run for the situation we are in now. We were able to flip the switch from children in classrooms to remote learning in a weekend, rather than months. We went from no technology for learning to only technology for learning. The new devices we ordered during ransomware arrived just in time to get them in the hands of students who needed them. A year later, we understand the reality of cyberattacks, and – like a global pandemic – we know that no one is immune. Since then, we have installed firewalls, updated our systems, invested in our teachers and improved our infrastructure so we can protect ourselves. As we navigate through this pandemic, we use what we learned during the ransomware attack to handle the current crisis.
A year from now, we will be talking about what we learned from 2020. At the top of my list would be the importance of teamwork and the need to remain positive and forward thinking. This isn’t always easy, but we have amazing teams of people in our district who work collaboratively to keep things moving, despite the circumstances. Whether it is a cyberattack or a pandemic, we must believe that something good can always come from disaster.
This week we will be starting a countywide campaign with our neighboring districts. We want communities to “check in with your kids” every single day. We need parents, grandparents, business owners, faith leaders, and community leaders to reach out to at least one child a day to ask them how they are doing, check their grades, encourage them, and let them know they are going to be just fine. If they hear that from all of us, they will know we are here to make sure that no matter what, it’s OK.
Karen Trujillo, Las Cruces Public Schools