Flagstaff Unified cancels classes on Friday as ransomware woes persist

Officials with Flagstaff Unified School District announced Thursday afternoon that classes will be cancelled on Friday, September 6, as the district continues to deal with a ransomware problem.

The decision was announced on the district's verified Facebook account at around 5:00 p.m.

School officials said FACTS (Family And Community Teaming for Students), childcare centers, preschools, and all after-school activities have also been cancelled. Work will continue through the weekend.

On Thursday, classes were also cancelled by FUSD officials. At the time the cancellation was announced, officials said it was due to a "cyber security issue", but Zachery Fountain with the district later announced it was due to ransomware that prompted school officials to take down internet access for all schools and facilities.

Ransomware typically denotes a demand for payment in exchange for access to locked computers.

"Types of systems that we're always concerned about are things like doors or door access system with badges. The ability to run a bell schedule, security cameras, all those types of things that make a school safe and secure," said Fountain.

School officials said Thursday information technology specialists are working around the clock to fix the school's computer system, but they refused to go into specific details, citing security concerns.

"By sharing that information, I get into some of the security-type things, and so, I'm not going to be able to disclose that at this time," said Fountain.

More than 9,600 students attend the 15 district's school sites. Meanwhile, some in Flagstaff are caught off-guard by the school closure.

 "I had never seen that, but times have changed," said Bert Gershater.

"Normally, when a computer go down when I was in school, it'd just be down," said Brittany Frandson. "You don't get on computers that day."

Flagstaff Unified is one of many school districts across the U.S. that have been targeted. Reportedly, one school district even negotiated with the hackers and paid a portion of the ransom to regain control of their computer system.

"Really, this is a reflection of broader cybersecurity issues across the country and internationally," said Fountain.

In order to get the decryption key for computer data locked out by ransomware, school officials would have to pay the ransom, unless they can figure it out themselves. Lester Godsey, City of Mesa's Chief Information Security Officer, said depending on the scope of the attack, ransomware can be crippling.

"For all intents and purposes, depending on how they initiate the ransomware attack, it is virtually impossible to gain access to that data unless the bad guy gives you the encryption key to do so," said Godsey.

Godsey says ransomware primarily comes via e-mail or links to websites. He suggests more user training and a multi-layered security approach that includes firewall, antivirus software, and privacy controls.

"This is a problem that exists for all organizations, regardless of what sector you are, regardless of how much you spend on cybersecurity, how sophisticated the technology is that you have in place," said Godsey.

Meanwhile, Flagstaff school officials say the goal is for everything to return to normal on Monday.

The Associated Press (AP) contributed to this report.