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An open letter to the ransomware attackers from a Baltimore County teacher | COMMENTARY

Melissa Powers, principal of Catonsville Elementary, center, checks on a teacher's laptop computer during a drive up event at Catonsville High School on Nov. 30, 2020. On left is Amanda Crabb, assistant principal at West Chester Elementary. Baltimore County Public Schools system provide drive-up check of teachers' computers at Catonsville High School and other schools after last week's ransomware attack.
Melissa Powers, principal of Catonsville Elementary, center, checks on a teacher's laptop computer during a drive up event at Catonsville High School on Nov. 30, 2020. On left is Amanda Crabb, assistant principal at West Chester Elementary. Baltimore County Public Schools system provide drive-up check of teachers' computers at Catonsville High School and other schools after last week's ransomware attack. (Kenneth K. Lam / Baltimore Sun)

I am a Baltimore County Public Schools teacher, but I don’t speak on behalf of the county, my school, the teachers’ union or anyone except myself. And I need to say something, because I want the people holding thousands of children’s education for ransom to understand who they’re really attacking with ransomware. While the assault on our technology network impacts teachers, staff and parents, it is the worst for our students.

I’ve witnessed how hard our kids work every day to keep their grades up so they can go to college, to balance school with work and helping to care for their families, and to make a better life for themselves despite the struggles they face.

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At the high school where I teach, many of our kids have lost parents, guardians and other family members this year. Many more rely on the meals the school still provides them every week, despite holding no in-person classes, as about two-thirds of the students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches. Too many are in the foster system or subsisting on their own.

And many, many of them rely on school — even in virtual form — to bring some normalcy and hope back into their lives. That’s why it was such a relief when, finally, in the last couple of weeks, many of the remaining devices and hot spots the county has been working for months to obtain were distributed, so that even in the middle of a pandemic we can fulfill the promise of every child’s right to an education.

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Then came last week’s ransomware attack. It denied more than 113,000 students across our county their rightful education, including more than 15,000 kids with learning disabilities and special needs. The duration may seem short to you, just a few lost days before returning to online education this Wednesday. But each day is critical for many of these kids, and now their safe space is no longer safe. We have no idea what the long-term damage to our system will be or how our personal information has been compromised. And we no longer trust that our school space is ours alone; it has been invaded. By you.

What lesson are our kids learning right now? That the effort they’ve tirelessly put into their schoolwork this semester can all be wiped away? That no matter how hard they work to raise themselves up, someone will always be there to beat them back down?

The student population in the school where I teach is about 78% African American and 12% Hispanic. When you disrupt their learning, you make the opportunity gap between students with privileges and students without even wider. As reported by McKinsey & Company and others, research indicates that learning loss during the pandemic injures low-income, Black and Hispanic students the most, and that missed opportunities to learn will haunt them throughout their lives.

These are children who have faced struggle after struggle this year, and you jeopardized their access to counselors and social workers, to the friends and teachers who have their backs, to the education that is rightfully theirs. This is a school system that needs all of the resources it can get to support our kids and secure the technology that, due to the pandemic, is the only safe way our students can attend school. BCPS has already had to lay off workers this year to continue providing these services. What will they need to cut in order to pay a ransom, should it come to that?

The optimist in me wants to see a glimpse of goodness even in people who would hold children’s education for ransom. I want to believe that your intention wasn’t to attack low-income communities of color, and I want to acknowledge that it’s actually not too late for you to reverse course. You still have it in your power to release the BCPS network and files, dispense with your demands and walk away. You can even call it an act of charity if you like — whatever it takes to awaken your sense of decency.

Jessica Beyer (jessicabeyer.com) is a writer and educator in Baltimore County.

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