Privacy concerns about distance learning

With so many students now at home, many schools are scrambling to provide the best possible education for their students. It’s obviously critical for students to continue to progress, but at the same time, schools should be mindful of the privacy issues raised by some online platforms.

Online learning and student privacy

The use of any online platform or software raises significant privacy concerns for all students that every school should consider. The privacy concerns may be particularly complex for families of English learners, immigrant students, and students with disabilities. At the same time, families who are using internet and Wi-Fi at home for the first time may need additional information about how to protect their privacy.

For example, Zoom’s privacy practices have come under scrutiny as usage increases on a global scale. You can read more about these concerns from the Washington Post and the American Civil Liberties Union, as well as coverage of incidents in Massachusetts and on college campuses in which hackers interrupted online Zoom classes with offensive content.

Immigration concerns

Immigrants with undocumented status or living in mixed-status households may have additional concerns about online security. The National Education Policy Center notes the following in their April 2020 brief:

Students from high-risk populations (such as undocumented families, foster youth, or survivors of domestic violence) may face immediate threats to their safety as a result of videos, images, or other information about them shared online. All students face longer-term threats, as education software collects information about them, both with and without their knowledge. Some of this information, including educational records transferred from a child’s school or a video that includes a child’s name, is explicitly personally identifiable.

Learn more from the following:

Note that undocumented immigrants were also unable to access many of the supports included in the federal stimulus bill to address COVID-19. For additional information, see Colorín Colorado’s guide on how schools can support undocumented students.

Disability concerns

Privacy issues are also relevant to students with disabilities. Educators and families may have questions about the collection of students’ health data, recording video of classes, or attending IEP meetings by videoconference. Families may also be concerned about receiving teletherapy and making sure that a student’s identity is kept private during any virtual sessions.

Learn more from these resources:

What districts can do

Colorín Colorado gathered some resources about privacy that might be helpful to teachers, schools, and district staff. They did not independently review the privacy policies of Google, Zoom, or other prominent software providers, but hope these resources will be helpful in enabling schools to carefully weigh these important privacy concerns as they determine which online tools, if any, they will use with their students.

For example, in order to protect privacy, some districts and states:

  • Prohibit the sharing of student images or videos, but teachers can share videos or podcasts of themselves

  • Have strict guidelines about which platforms are approved or how to add additional levels of security among the platforms for maximum student protection

  • Discourage the use of apps that families have to download at home

School and district leaders, working in collaboration with the district’s IT and legal departments, are in the best position to create student privacy policies based on state guidelines and provide guidance to educators and families, as well as to help families understand their options regarding distance learning. Any updates for families or family consent forms should be written in plain language and made available in families’ home languages.

Adapted from Colorín Colorado. © 2020, WETA. 


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