Haywood County’s Board of Education will have to pay dearly yet again for the nation’s recent rash of cyber- and ransomware attacks, this time through its insurance bill.

The school board voted unanimously Monday night to approve a contract for one year of cyber-liability insurance coverage with Evolve, through Morrow Insurance Agency of Hendersonville. The policy would cover up to $1 million in expenses. The cost: $22,318.

Last year’s cyber insurance cost $6,653.

The more-than $15,000 increase was not caused so much by the fact that Haywood schools were hit with a ransomware attack last year as it was by the increase in attacks nationwide, said Haywood County Schools Superintendent Bill Nolte.

Last year’s insurance provider not only dropped Haywood’s cyber coverage; it quit offering cyber liability insurance altogether, Nolte said. And companies that still offer it have dramatically increased the premiums because of the increase in attacks. The new rate, which also comes with a higher deductible, “is not uncommon at all,” he said.

The General Assembly is considering legislation that would prohibit any state agency from paying a ransom in case of cyber attack, Nolte added. If that passes, it would decrease the amount of coverage the school system would need for cyber protection.

The Haywood school system was hit with a ransomware attack in August of 2020, just weeks into a new school year that began with remote learning thanks to the COVID 19 epidemic. Schools were closed for only one day, but the attack created a marathon repair and restoration project for technology teams who had to clean and re-synchronize 2,200 computers used by faculty and staff.

Haywood schools were set up better than many systems to handle an attack, Nolte said. The schools’ computer programs operated on a strong segmented system, with a series of protections, so that a hacker who was successful in breaking in could only access a portion of its operation. The schools also had a strong third-party backup system, meaning they only lost four days worth of data. While the system did not pay a ransom, it still incurred costs for the repairs and staff time.

Request to unmask

In other school board business:

Stephanie Bell, mother of children in the Haywood County school system, asked the board to remove the masking requirements for students. “I want my children’s rights to stop being violated,” she said. “My children’s rights are violated by making them wear one.”

The board had discussed going against the existing mandate for students to wear masks during its June meeting. Upon advice of school board attorney Pat Smathers, board members Larry Henson, Steven Kirkpatrick and Bobby Rogers withdrew an original motion that would have defied Gov. Roy Cooper’s mask mandate for public schools. Instead they proposed, and the board passed, a motion opposing the mandate and directing administration to try to lesson the effect of masking with social distancing and outdoor instruction. Cooper’s order for masking is effective through July 30. The mask mandate for at-risk settings also applies to public transportation, health care and child care facilities as well as prisons and jails. Opponents of in-school masking have argued that children and youth are among those least likely to contract COVID or suffer lasting effects. They also say masking hinders the learning process.

The board did not bring up the masking issue during its actual session Monday, though member Bobby Rogers discussed the number of Haywood’s COVID cases and fatalities with several members of the board briefly before the meeting began. Rogers repeated statistics on the number of COVID cases and deaths in Haywood County and told fellow members that 75% of those fatalities were among those age 65 and older.

Employment changesThe board also approved a recommended list of 22 employments for the 2021-2022 school year. The personnel report also included the facts that 13 people had left employment, 30 had undergone status changes, and one had taken a leave of absence. Other new employees for the coming school year had been approved in the spring.

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