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How colleges are dealing with COVID-19 social distancing, cybersecurity

How colleges are dealing with COVID-19 social distancing, cybersecurity
The coronavirus pandemic has disrupted college campuses around the world, creating new social distancing and cybersecurity challenges.
Today’s college experience has been thrown into chaos as a result of the social distancing and cybersecurity challenges brought on by the coronavirus pandemic. Once bustling campuses have been left empty for months, with in-person instruction all moved to remote learning. With the fall semester upon us, campus administrators must now decide if they want to open, and if so, how to do so safely and securely.

Less socializing, more social distancing

Paul Timm FEA
Paul Timm, VP,
Facility Engineering Associates
In the U.S., nearly one-third of colleges, community colleges and universities reopened their campuses for the fall semester, allowing students and faculty to return to varying degrees of physical in-person learning, according to data collected by the College Crisis Initiative (C2i).

Reopening, though, came with strict rules and regulations regarding social distancing. Considering that a major aspect of the college experience is socializing — in class, at sporting events, parties, etc., enforcing social distancing guidelines has proven a difficult task.

Many colleges in the U.S. have brought students back with a no party rule; however, as reported in the news, many campuses quickly shut back down after dealing with unauthorized partying resulting in COVID-19 outbreaks.

“Large and predictable gatherings (e.g., sporting events, chapel services) are being replaced with smaller and unscheduled gatherings (e.g., impromptu movement of class to an exterior area). The former gatherings were made safer through planning and experience. The latter type will require new levels of awareness, communication and emergency preparedness,” said Paul Timm, VP of Facility Engineering Associates. He pointed out that even emergency drills, such as fire drills, will now have to take into account new social distancing requirements.

Ultimately the effectiveness of social distancing to stop the spread of COVID-19 will come down to how well students and staff follow guidelines, both on and off campus.

Remote learning creates cybersecurity concerns

The coronavirus pandemic highlighted gaps is cybersecurity. Universities were unprepared for the unprecedented move to a fully remote learning system, which created a larger threat surface for cybercriminals. As a result, students, faculty and IT networks were left more vulnerable to cyberattacks.

One of the biggest cybersecurity headaches for university IT managers right now are email phishing scams. According to the US Federal Trade Commission a common phishing scam targets students. Scammers send emails regarding COVID-19 stimulus checks to students pretending to be from the university’s financial aid department. When students click on links in the email cybercriminals are able to steal personal information and plant malware onto their personal devices.

These security issues are only being exacerbated by the lack of security funding due to decreased student enrollment or changes to the enrollment process, according to Angela Osborne, Regional Director of Security and Technology Consulting at Guidepost Solutions.

“As with other departments, I believe security departments will find less funding available and face pressures to evaluate current staffing due to the decreased presence of students on campus. Many universities were already under financial challenges due to the limitations on foreign students who often pay full tuition rates,” Osborne explained.

By educating students and staff on how to protect home networks and how to identify phishing scams the damage caused by cybercriminals can be limited.

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