Start of School in Hartford Delayed by Ransomware Attack

By | September 11, 2020

One the worst cyberattacks yet against Connecticut’s capital city forced officials to postpone the first day of school Tuesday, disrupting the day for thousands of families as city computer experts rushed to restore systems vital for school operations.

Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin said the hacker or hackers indicated it was a ransomware attack, but only left an email address to contact and made no specific ransom demand. The problem was discovered Saturday and numerous systems were affected, including one used to communicate transportation routes and live information to school bus drivers.

Tuesday was supposed to be the first day of school for the district of about 18,000 students. Both in-person and remote learning were postponed to Wednesday, officials said.

“We are often the subject of cyberattacks,” Bronin said at a news conference. “This was, however, the most extensive and significant attack that the city has been subject to … certainly in the last five years.”

Much of the damage had been repaired by Monday night, and work on critical systems was completed Tuesday. The city’s $500,000 worth of cybersecurity improvements implemented last year prevented officials from being locked out of the city’s systems, Bronin said.

Superintendent of Schools Leslie Torres-Rodriguez announced the school opening postponement early Tuesday morning and said officials were checking to see if any school staff computers were affected by the attack.

“We are heavily relying on all of our technology and on our staff’s ability to access technology in order to deliver remote instruction, given that more than half of our student population has elected to learn remotely,” she said. “The team … is trying to assess the impact throughout all of our 40 schools.”

Torres-Rodriguez said city schools were ready to open with a variety of coronavirus precautions. School officials said pre-kindergarten through ninth grade were to be fully in person, while a hybrid system of in-school and remote learning will be used for grades 10 through 12, under the currently low virus rate of fewer than 10 new cases per 100,000 population over a seven-day average.

Many parents took to social media Tuesday to express disappointment over the first day of school being postponed, with their children looking forward to returning to classes and seeing their friends. Some also were upset at what they called last-minute notice of the delay, noting officials knew about the problem since the weekend.

Kate Court said her 13-year-old son was already dressed and ready to go to the bus stop when she discovered the postponement. A New Britain resident and shipping warehouse worker, Court’s teenager attends a Hartford magnet school and her 8-year-old son goes to a Hartford elementary school.

“I didn’t get the message until 6 a.m.,” she said. “It’s pretty ridiculous. I’m a lucky one in that my mom was home to watch them. If not, I would have … had to miss work.”

“This is crazy,” she said “We’re looking for normalcy again, whatever that may be.”

School officials said that while most of the computer systems were restored by Monday night, they did not learn until early Tuesday morning that the bus transportation system was still down.

Ransomware attacks targeting state and local governments have been on the rise, with cyber criminals seeking quick money by seizing data and holding it hostage until they get paid.

City officials say it wasn’t clear how the hacker or hackers gained access to city systems or if the attack was aimed at delaying the opening of school. Bronin said it appeared no sensitive personal or financial information was stolen in the attack.

More than 200 of the city’s 300 computer servers were disrupted. Besides the schools, the police department systems for report writing and video cameras also were affected, but there were no problems with the 911 system, Police Chief Jason Thody said.

City police were working with the FBI to try to identify who was behind the attack.

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