Sens. Mark Warner, D-Va., and Susan Collins, R-Maine, asked Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona to ensure that schools nationwide are aware that they can use Federal funding from COVID-19 relief bills to improve cybersecurity.
In a letter, the senators stress that the pivot to virtual and hybrid learning has increased the cybersecurity risks school districts face. However, cybersecurity concerns will last well after the pandemic is over.
“While online learning offers an abundance of positive opportunities for educators and students, without proper cybersecurity defenses, our nation’s education systems face formidable risks,” the letter says. “Even as our nation’s schools fully return to in-person learning, cybersecurity risks will still be plentiful in the technology-dependent modern learning environment.”
Both the CARES Act and the American Rescue Plan including funding for K-12 schools, including $200 billion for the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER) and $7 billion for the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund (GEER).
“While we understand schools must divide these funds across various crucial concerns, the pandemic has catapulted our school systems to an inflection point where investment in cybersecurity is now more critical than ever,” the senators wrote.
However, while the funding is available, legislators said they have heard from school districts that are unsure as to whether they can use relief funding for cybersecurity purposes. The letter does acknowledge that the department recently published a frequently asked questions document (FAQ), which confirms they can be used to improve cybersecurity “to better meet educational and other needs of students related to preventing, preparing for, or responding to COVID-19.”
The senators do not believe the FAQ was enough and asked that the Biden administration take the necessary steps to widely publicize that school districts can use the funding for cybersecurity needs, as well as help school districts understand the importance of using funding for cybersecurity efforts.
Specifically, Sens. Warner and Collins ask the Education Department to issue public guidance “clearly stating that states and local education authorities (LEAs) can use ESSER or GEER funds to improve cybersecurity, with guidance on suggested spending priorities to address the endemic threat of ransomware disproportionately impacting school systems.” Additionally, the letter asks the department to develop a plan to ensure school districts are aware of this allowable use and engage with LEAs to ensure they understand the importance of these resources.