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Back-to-School: Privacy Worries in a Remote Learning World

As the new school year gets underway, many students will be returning to the classroom in-person, while others will opt to continue hybrid or remote learning indefinitely. Unfortunately, for families choosing the latter, remote learning could come at the expense of their online privacy. 

According to the RAND Corporation’s 2020 research report, one in five U.S. school districts plan to offer online learning even after the pandemic ends. Many school districts are waiting to review the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) latest recommendations. Either way, there’s no better time for a data privacy refresh.  

Privacy-forward policies

Protecting your child’s privacy while remote learning requires a three-part investment of parents, students, and schools. One of the first steps in that direction is to understand your district’s privacy practices. To do that, ask to take a closer look at its approach to data consent, secondary data use, as well as its data collection and retention practices. 

Common privacy gaps

According to The Center for Democracy and Technology, there are five areas where schools may put a child’s privacy at risk. 

1. Digital assessments

Using student data to assess needs and launch connectivity and device programs can pose a privacy risk.  

Ask: To assess overall digital access, the school collected my child’s data. How will that data be used? 

2. Data sharing

Sharing student data with third parties, such as broadband and device providers, is a common practice that can pose a privacy risk.  

Ask: To connect my remote learner, the school shared my child’s data with the provider. Can the school ensure that data will be used by the third-party responsibly? May I view the data use policy?  

3. Monitoring protocols  

Schools now have apps that allow teachers to monitor student progress.   

Ask: With more teacher access to student devices and desktops, how can the school ensure that my child’s other data is secure?  

4. Loaner device security

Ongoing security and device management requirements should be established to avoid viruses and malicious activity.  

Ask: What security measures are in place on school-owned devices to protect my child’s content or personal information? Will my child’s activity be tracked?  

5. Low digital literacy IQ 

A lack of digital literacy and security knowledge on the part of students, families and even schools can put a child’s privacy at risk.  

Ask: What digital literacy resources or training do you offer teachers, staff, students and families?

Got Governance?

One sign your child’s privacy is in good hands is if your school has a solid Data Governance Policy (DGP) that staff, teachers, and students follow. A DGP establishes schools processes and structures for overseeing the school’s approach to management, usability, availability, quality and security of data and technology. 

Going a step further, a privacy-aware school will engage students, families, teachers, and administrators (and even third-party providers) about the importance of data use and closing privacy gaps. 

4 ways to get proactive with data privacy

1. Discuss, define privacy 

Rather than make assumptions, discuss what privacy is with your child. For example, with more time online, consider parental controls to filter risky content. Likewise, talk to your child about how to identify phishing scams and consider investing in security software that scans for malware and untrusted sites. 

2. Protect personal info

If your child uses video apps such as Zoom to connect remotely, be sure that personal information—such as birthdate, address, photographs, or a nickname—isn’t accidently visible in the background.  

3. Optimize privacy settings  

Whether your child uses Zoom, a chat app, website or another EdTech platform for learning, set privacy settings to provide maximum protection. Following the directions under “settings” of any new app are fast and easy.  

4. School directory opt-out

Under FERPA, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, schools must notify you of your right to opt out of Directory Information at the start of the school year. Don’t opt-out? Schools can share Directory Information about their child with third parties without parental or student consent. 

If we could point to a positive consequence of the pandemic, it would be that with the sudden spike in connectivity during quarantine, data privacy concerns became more prevalent than ever—that shift deserves an A+. Moving forward, it’s critical for parents and schools to work together to create practices that protect online privacy for all students—on-site or remote.   

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