Ransomware attack sends students home in Nantucket.
CNN  — 

A ransomware attack forced the closure Tuesday of four public schools serving 1,700 students on the island of Nantucket, Massachusetts, the school district’s superintendent said in an email to parents.

The hacking incident shut down all student and staff devices, as well as safety and security systems at Nantucket Public Schools, forcing an early dismissal at noon on Tuesday, Superintendent Elizabeth Hallett said in the email, which she shared with CNN.

The news came as Tucson Unified School District (TUSD), which calls itself the largest pre-K-12 school district in southern Arizona, also suffered a ransomware attack in recent days, according to local news reports. Representatives of TUSD did not respond to emails seeking comment. There was no evidence that the two incidents were related.

Ransomware – malicious software that locks computers and holds them for ransom – has for years plagued US schools and other organizations that can be short on money and personnel to defend themselves from hacks.

The hacks often force schools to temporarily close, further disrupting learning during the coronavirus pandemic. The lack of cybersecurity budgeting at primary schools is a “major constraint to implementing effective cybersecurity programs across all K–12 entities,” the federal US Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency warned in a report this month.

Nantucket Public Schools includes an elementary, middle and high school, and serves Nantucket, which is about 30 miles south of Cape Cod, Massachusetts.

Athletic events at the school were still scheduled to proceed. “No school issued devices should be used at home until further notice, as it could compromise home networks,” Hallett said in her email to parents.

“We do not have any updates yet on when we will return,” Hallett told CNN in a separate email.

There have already been five ransomware attacks on US school districts in January, according to a tally from Brett Callow, threat analysts at cybersecurity firm Emsisoft. Forty-five US school districts operating 1,981 schools were hit by ransomware in 2022, according to Emsisoft.

A year ago, New Mexico’s largest public school district had to close temporarily after a cyberattack hit computer systems that could affect learning and student safety.

“The ransomware attacks on school districts across the country are a stark reminder that as a country we need to ensure our citizens are cyber literate,” Kevin Nolten, vice president of Cyber Innovation Center, a not-for-profit supported by federal grant money that promotes cybersecurity curricula in K-12 schools, told CNN.

“Cybersecurity education is a national security issue and we must educate our country on protecting our most critical infrastructure from malicious attacks,” Nolten said in an email pointing to the high demand for cybersecurity skills in the workforce.