Houston County School malware attack

Houston County Sheriff Donald Valenza, Houston County School Superintendent David Sewell, school board Chairman Vince Wade, and Technology Director Bob Blalock share limited details on a malware attack on district servers with the media at a press conference at the Houston County Board of Education boardroom.


Houston County Schools’ start date is delayed another week because of issues associated with a recent malware attack on the system’s servers.

Superintendent David Sewell said the district has not been recovering from the hack as quickly as he had hoped because of having to reboot almost 4,000 devices and rebuild the school’s network.

“The vendors have had some problems recovering our data, although we do have good backups,” Sewell said in an interview on Tuesday afternoon. “We have been very fortunate that we have good backups.”

The new start date is Aug. 12 and open house will be held on Aug. 8 from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. The original start date was set for Aug. 1, until the system announced it would have to postpone until Aug. 5 on Thursday, July 25, because of the hack. Teachers started back on Monday, July 29.

The Alabama State Department has advised, again, that the district would not have to add days on to the backend of the calendar. Other student holidays will also not have to be made up, unless something changes.

“We just have to be diligent with our time,” Sewell said, adding that he believes teachers will be able to make up for lost time with their students despite the 11-day loss.

The malware attack affected telecommunications, internet service, and computers that are connected to the district’s wide area network (WAN). Sewell said it is estimated that the network will not be available for another three weeks.

“We have to go to each machine and touch it,” Sewell said. “It’s almost like starting over from scratch.”

Sewell said he could not comment of the hack’s potential effect on student and parent information or financial records.

“Some files could be lost – teachers’ tests, files, lesson plans,” he said. “If it becomes infected, it could be lost.”

When asked if the culprit had been found, Sewell hesitated, but said no. He again would not confirm or deny that the attack involved ransomware, a kind of malicious software designed to deny access to a computer system or data until a ransom is paid.

“We’re really not to the point where we can say anything; we’re still assessing some of the damage,” Sewell said.

Sewell said that roughly 4,000 devices must be rebooted and re-programmed.

Teachers instead will not be able to use their old laptops, but will be receiving 450 brand new laptops. The big purchase was an estimated $350,000 line item in the upcoming fiscal year’s budget, but the ALSDE has approved the funding for the purchase early because of the emergency circumstances.

“It makes me angry to know that someone is doing this to us because it’s costing us a great deal of time and money,” Sewell said. “It’s something that we didn’t have to do – shouldn’t have to have done.”

Sewell said enrolling students and getting students their schedules and making changes has been haphazard because of not being able to use computers, printers, or email transmission, but he is confident students will know where they are supposed to go by open house.

Houston County School’s Institute day remains scheduled for Wednesday, July 31, at Watermark Church at 9 a.m. Before, the school board will have another board meeting to approve personnel and hold an executive session. Executive sessions are private meetings used to discuss legal matters and issues of good name and character.

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