Hartford Public Schools closed due to ransomware attack

Schools in the Hartford Public School system did not open on Tuesday as scheduled due to a cyber attack.

In a letter posted to families and staff on the district's website, school officials wrote that no in-person or online learning would take place until a ransomware virus detected in the system that communicates transportation routes to the district's bus company could be resolved. The virus had caused an outage of critical systems.

Ransomware attacks prevent users from accessing systems or personal files and demand a ransom payment in order to regain access.

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.

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Tuesday was supposed to be the first day of school for the district of about 18,000 students since it shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic on March 17. Both in-person and remote learning have now been pushed back by the attack, officials said. A new start date has not been announced.

“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. 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.

"Everyone at Hartford Public Schools was ready to welcome back our beautiful and capable students in person and remotely. We will provide updates when we have additional information to share."

Dear Families and Staff,

We regret to inform you that we must postpone the opening of schools. There will be no in-person or online learning on Tuesday, September 8. We wanted to provide you with an important update about the impact on our systems. 

We have been informed by Metro Hartford Information Services (MHIS), our City of Hartford shared services team that manages our network infrastructure, that the ransomware virus caused an outage of critical systems and the restoration of those systems are not complete. This includes the system that communicates our transportation routes to our bus company and it is preventing our ability to operate schools on Tuesday. 

Everyone at Hartford Public Schools was ready to welcome back our beautiful and capable students in person and remotely. We will provide updates when we have additional information to share.


The Hartford Public Schools Team

With the Associated Press