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The education sector experienced an unprecedented number of data breaches in 2021, with 138 incidents of student or employee information compromised.

At least 12.4 million records were exposed across the breaches, according to a report by Top 10 VPN. Most incidents were attributed to vulnerabilities in online systems, unsecured remote access ports, and phishing attacks targeting employees.

The massive increases highlight risks around data security and privacy in education that have only grown during the pandemic. More data is now remote and online, yet many schools have struggled to keep up with best practices and implement multilayered safeguards. They face challenges around limited budgets, expertise, and adaptability to constant change.

Local, state, and federal governments have issued guidance on securing data and systems, but no requirements or regulations yet exist in most states. Critics argue this must change to protect students and avoid catastrophic failure. Supporters counter that mandates could be costly and lead to unintended consequences without proper resources or flexibility.

There are reasonable arguments on both sides but clear problems that demand action. At a minimum, experts recommend schools conduct audits, enable multi-factor authentication, use encrypted systems, limit access, provide training, monitor networks, and have incident response plans in place. They also advise keeping data minimal when possible and storing only what’s necessary.

The reality is complex with no single solution, but many options exist within reach if the will and prioritization are there. Students, employees, and institutions alike have too much at stake to ignore risks that could derail futures and trust if left unaddressed. While change is difficult, the alternative is far worse.

data breaches should serve as a call to action, not policy paralysis. With commitment and collaboration across the sector, progress can be made in securing education’s future and the opportunities, outcomes and well-being it provides. But leadership is imperative for navigating this challenging moment and building systems that can adapt and thrive for years to come.

By heeding lessons learned, nonprofits and for-profits; administrators, professors and advocates; and policymakers at every level must work together toward reform. Only then can high-quality, inclusive and forward-looking education be ensured for all, with data and dignity intact. The costs of waiting will be steep if breaches continue at this record pace. The time for action is now.

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