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Baltimore County principals, teachers feel ‘disrespected’ by communication gaps following ransomware attack

Unions representing Baltimore County public school principals and teachers delivered a letter to district leaders over the weekend, stating the lack of transparency and communication following the recent ransomware attack is “wreaking havoc upon havoc.”

In the letter delivered Sunday to Superintendent Darryl L. Williams, the Teachers Association of Baltimore County and the Council of Administrative and Supervisory Employees, which represents principals, assistant principals and others, said their members have “had enough” and demanded more information from school officials in the wake of the catastrophic ransomware attack that has crippled the school system since November.

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“Every time we have been told to do something, to adjust on the fly with little notice, we have stepped up and done it,” the unions state in the letter. “We simply cannot do it anymore. We are frustrated. We are stressed. We are tired. And we are angry. Educators and administrators feel marginalized and disrespected by the system.”

According to the unions’ leaders, Williams called each of them personally Sunday after receiving the letter. The superintendent promised to improve communications and agreed to join a regularly scheduled meeting Monday evening with all five unions representing county schools employees, the union representatives said.

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In a letter responding to the unions Monday, Williams acknowledged that the attack added “yet another layer of frustration” for school employees already facing hurdles caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We are working with local and national experts to assist us with the review, repair, and recovery phases,” Williams said. “Since there is no other Maryland system experiencing a pandemic and cyberattack at the same time, we are relying on these experts to guide us through these phases, and staff are taking on longer-term projects. The solutions are not going to happen quickly.”

The unions are the latest group to publicly air frustrations with the communication coming from Baltimore County school leaders, who have been struggling to appease the community’s appetite for details on the scope of the cyberattack.

Earlier in December, Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. called out school officials for allegedly refusing to share information with local police, the county attorney and state information technology experts. Williams replied at the time with his own letter to Olszewski, stating his team has been communicating with the FBI “throughout the process.”

The unions’ letter listed multiple questions that have gone unanswered and chronicled several instances when administrators delivered unclear or confusing directions on short notice.

“Everyone understands an ongoing investigation can mean not all information can be shared,” the unions state in the letter. “But because of the unclear or missing communication, not only are the rumors flying, people are becoming more and more wary. There are hundreds of questions and not many clear answers.”

The unions said no one knew for days if personal information was compromised in the attack, which occurred the day before Thanksgiving. It remains unclear whether they will ever regain access to vital information including student transcripts and other records, learning objectives, lesson plans, education plans for students with disabilities or additional needs, or even pay stubs — the last of which has jeopardized some employees’ ability to refinance or purchase a home, or to adopt a child, the letter states.

Cindy Sexton, president of the county teachers’ association, said she “feels certain” the letter grabbed Williams’ attention.

“People don’t trust the school system right now,” Sexton said Monday. “We don’t know what is okay and what is not, especially after the letter the county executive sent out. That further led to a lack of trust.”

Tom DeHart, executive director of supervisors and administrative employees council, said communication is the linchpin to getting through a crisis. He described how principals are caught in the “eye of a hurricane,” funneling questions up to top leadership and delegating directions down to employees.

DeHart wants the public to know educators are not “whiners,” but rather professionals trying to do what’s best for children.

Recently, union members have described problems with swapping out school-issued devices on short notice. Some of the devices handed out were not functional and could not be used to teach. Educators have reported using personal devices in order to continue instructing students, Sexton said.

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“The tools for us to effectively do our jobs are not being provided yet we are still being held accountable in the same manner they were prior to the ransomware attack,” the unions’ letter states.

The unions called for the school system to bring in an expert on ransomware attacks to “share what is and is not possible and why it will take some time to ‘fix’ things.”

“Staff doesn’t have to like what they hear but at least they will be hearing what is known and why,” the letter states.

Williams said he is committed to addressing communications concerns and pledged to meet with union leaders weekly. Staff members from several offices including technology, facilities, business support services, human resources, fiscal services, communications and legal are working with experts and vendors to keep schools functioning, Williams said in his reply to unions.

“I know that our school community is depending on us and coming to us with questions,” he said. “We do not yet have all the answers, but we will get there together.”

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