A Conversation with Erika Robinson About Student Data Privacy

A Conversation with Erika Robinson About Student Data Privacy

COVID-19 has placed districts, schools, and educators in unprecedented circumstances as they balance health concerns, academic responsibilities, and equity concerns to determine how to reopen this fall. How does student privacy relate to this planning? For this blog series, Future of Privacy Forum (FPF) has interviewed state, district, and school student privacy leaders, to reflect on lessons learned from the rapid transition to online learning in the spring and to offer best practices regarding student data privacy as schools plan for the coming academic year. 

On August 4, Juliana Cotto, a policy fellow on FPF’s youth and education team, spoke with Erika Robinson, General Counsel and Title IX Coordinator for Jackson Public School District in Mississippi about device and internet access, obstacles to professional development for educators, and important considerations for monitoring participation and engagement in online settings. 

Juliana: Can you start by providing context on your district, specifically regarding device and internet access? 

Erika: In my community, we have about 25,000 students. Over 90 percent of students are eligible to receive free or reduced lunch. We are working to provide devices in each home but have not yet reached one-to-one. We are also working to provide hot spots throughout our community. We’re still at the beginning stages. When you’re working in the context of communities that are already struggling with poverty issues, and you add this layer of having your students and staff go virtual, it’s difficult to figure out how to do that well. We have all the smart people in the world trying to figure out solutions to provide high-quality education to our kids, but it’s tough.

Juliana: What have been the most significant challenges regarding the digital divide and providing resources?

Erika: I think access to actual technology: ensuring that every child in our district has a device in hand to participate in the process. We still have a significant number of students who will have to work with learning packets. Being able to provide one-to-one devices is huge, but directly tied to that is internet connectivity. We can give out all the necessary devices, but if students don’t have internet access, their capacity to be engaged will be severely limited. It’s hard to educate when you’re dealing with significant digital inequities. When you have parents who only have access to social media via cell phones, how do you provide training on what it means to help your kid get on Zoom? Or you don’t have internet access, and so you try to utilize your cell phone, but you have intermittent connectivity issues because you’re accessing it via a cellular device. There are a lot of social inequities that make it difficult to transmit information for families. 

Juliana: Have you seen the conversation about student privacy evolve with the rapid transition to online learning? 

Erika: I have had people ask for training on the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA); that’s never happened before. I’ve been working in school districts for the past year and a half, and we had to make people complete FERPA training. Nobody actually affirmatively requested it, so that’s huge. What I haven’t noticed but wish there were more of are conversations about what kind of education we will provide to students and teachers to protect their own data in a virtual learning setting, once devices are available. I’d like to see conversations from a risk-management perspective. 

Jackson Public Schools dealt with a significant security breach somewhat recently. We had a ransomware attack in February, as did multiple other districts across the country, and we lost a ton of data. So not only are we interested in protecting student data but protecting the district’s data generally. One of the ways we can manage risk in that area is ensuring training on certain things like phishing, leaving your devices open, things of that nature, for our employees. But what are we going to do for students? We can’t just be concerned about employee data and how they’re using it. We also have to be concerned about students, and I have not seen a training product that applies to students that we could use.

Juliana: Thinking about the fall, do you believe schools, educators, and students are more prepared for video classrooms than they were last spring?

Erika: Yes and no. I think that schools have a better sense of what some of the issues are, but I’m not entirely confident that families and educators are as well informed. March is when everyone immediately transitioned to a digital learning space. This went on from March to May, in most instances. So you had from June to now, when educators haven’t had the opportunity to have professional development around these issues. Families have not had to engage with the issues because schools weren’t in session, and I think when you layer on digital inequity not only for our students but for our employees, I’m not very confident that those two constituencies are fully prepared for what we are embarking on this fall. We also have to keep in mind that most people did not believe COVID-19 would last this long, to the extent that schools would remain in a virtual space for the next semester. Taking all of that into consideration, I don’t feel confident that all groups are better informed on how to protect student privacy or that they are aware that they have a responsibility related to student privacy in the educational space. 

Juliana: Why do you think educators weren’t offered professional development (PD) that perhaps should have been provided during the summer?

Erika: Well, you have a couple of issues happening. You have the very real employment issue of contracted periods to work and whether you can give those types of assignments based on whether people are contracted to work. Most teachers are 10-month employees paid over 12 months. As a result, school districts don’t have the leverage to require them to participate in PD until that new contract goes into effect. Typically, teachers come back a week to two weeks before school starts. And with all the other things that are required to transition to the virtual learning space––including lesson planning, communication strategies with parents, and so much more––PD on this issue is just one on a list of a million things that teachers have to do to prepare for the school year. And frankly, as I said before, I’m not sure that people believed that we would be teaching in a digital space again. Most of our efforts were put into accessing CARES Act dollars and preparing for the next year. In that preparation, we were anticipating in-person learning. 

Juliana: In an online environment, how should schools consider monitoring attendance, participation, behavior, and engagement? What should schools be cautious of?

Erika: When I think about monitoring attendance, it seems pretty innocuous, but when I think about behavior and participation, I’m immediately a little stressed. You don’t want to misread someone’s lack of participation or disinterest when what’s really going on is a learning disability or just a different learning style that isn’t being appropriately accommodated in a virtual space. There is something about being in the physical space of a room with another person that helps people understand what is happening, which I don’t think translates well in an online learning space. I wouldn’t want the fact that I’m looking up and not directly at the screen to translate into the belief that I’m not paying attention, and therefore, I receive a demerit. So figuring out how to manage a classroom in a virtual environment is going to be difficult. 

I am concerned about the age of students. I think you can more easily gauge participation via chat or some other kind of online board for high school and middle school students, but how do you do that for PreK–5 in a way that is not distracting and adds value to the learning? We need to carefully consider how we judge participation.

Juliana: What trends in technology do you think we’ll see schools adopt for the fall?

Erika: I hope we’re going to adopt some end-to-end encryption and virtual private networks for staff working remotely, from a security perspective. From a student perspective, outside of the learning management systems and video conferencing platforms, maybe we could adopt apps that are specifically developed for students who have to rely on cell phones for their learning. I know we also need to think about how we’re going to do assessments. The Every Student Succeeds Act requires states to do statewide assessments. Are we still going to have these testing requirements for statewide assessments? If so, how are we going to do that in a virtual space? People can’t even figure out how to administer the bar exam to adults in a virtual space; they just opted to cancel it in most states. How do we administer a state test in a virtual space? Can we? That’s something that I hope someone figures out soon, because if they will not waive the requirement, the technology needs of school districts will have to be addressed. 


This interview was conducted by Juliana Cotto on August 4, 2020. It has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

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