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Howard cancels another day of online and hybrid classes as officials investigate alleged cyberattack

Students on the Northwest Washington college campus are trying to make the best of the situation

Howard University continues to investigate what officials have called a ransomware cyberattack. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)
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While Howard University continues to battle what officials have called a ransomware cyberattack, students on the Northwest Washington campus are trying to make the best of the situation.

With many classes canceled Wednesday, students spent part of the day borrowing Wi-Fi from nearby businesses and relying on mobile hotspots to complete assignments.

But others took advantage of the day off — lounging on the Yard or planning off-campus excursions. Jaysha Jackson, a freshman biology major, waited near a residence hall with three friends for a ride to a tattoo parlor. She said getting Wi-Fi on campus has been a struggle. She has used her cellphone as a mobile hotspot but said the connection was unreliable.

“I had to go buy a hotspot extension from T-Mobile,” Jackson said. The equipment cost $40 to activate and will cost $10 a month to keep running. She added that people are running out of options. “The teachers are confused as well.”

The university, along with law enforcement, continues to investigate the attack. Howard officials first detected the problem Friday, then took many university systems offline. Internet service was disrupted through the holiday weekend and Tuesday classes were canceled.

Some in-person courses resumed Wednesday, but officials canceled online and hybrid classes. Those courses will remain suspended Thursday, but students enrolled in fully in-person classes will be expected to return to classrooms, officials said Wednesday.

Officials did not release details on who might be responsible for the attack, what software they used or what they want from the historically Black campus of more than 11,000 students. But leaders told students and employees to expect that their devices and access credentials will be audited.

“These audits will require sweeping of phones, laptops, and other digital work tools, which may be susceptible to data breaching,” officials warned. “All university usernames, email addresses and other log-in credentials will be verified for authenticity, access privileges and activity.”

Howard University cancels online, hybrid classes as it investigates alleged ransomware attack

Meanwhile, more than two dozen students worked from a nearby Whole Foods, which freshman Glory Ugorji claimed has the best WiFi. She has also tried the connections at McDonald’s and Starbucks on Georgia Avenue NW near campus.

Ugorji, a political science major, said her professors have been understanding, postponing assignments and encouraging students to complete whatever work they can. “But no one can really do anything” without Internet, she said.

Professors have been advised that many students are without Internet access, and several students at Whole Foods were doing work that had been assigned before the weekend.

Ugorji doesn’t mind the delay. “I’m okay with no WiFi as long as they are investigating it,” Ugorji said, adding that she is worried her personal data could be stolen. The university is still figuring out what data was accessed during the attack, but officials said there is no evidence personal information was taken.

The alleged cyberattack comes after years of WiFi infrastructure upgrades at Howard — modernizations that campus spokesman Frank Tramble said helped officials quickly shut down the university’s system and detect the problem early.

“We’ve done a lot of work up to this point,” he said. “This would be much worse of a situation if we had not already been on a journey to fix a lot of the cybersecurity infrastructure issues we had before.”

Tramble said the university is working to bring Verizon mobile Wi-Fi trucks to campus, although it is unclear when they will arrive.

For many students, the situation has been frustrating.

Malaysia Latimer, a first-year architecture student, said she is usually organized and likes to get started on assignments well before they are due.

“The teachers expect us to get work done, but there’s still no Internet,” Latimer said. She has been using her phone as a hotspot but said the connection started to lag Wednesday morning. “It’s hard to keep up with classes.”