A Conversation with Felix Childs About Student Privacy During COVID-19

A Conversation with Felix Childs About Student Privacy During COVID-19

COVID-19 has placed districts, schools, and educators in unprecedented circumstances as they balance health concerns, academic responsibilities, and equity concerns this fall. How does student privacy relate to these issues? 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 in the current academic year. 

On July 24, Juliana Cotto, a policy fellow on FPF’s youth and education team, spoke with Felix Childs, Technology Support Services Director for the South Carolina Department of Education, about the state AccelerateED Task Force created in response to COVID-19, the rapid shift to online learning, the challenge of internet accessibility, and ways to manage risk when educators record virtual classes. 

Juliana: What are lessons learned from online learning last spring? How should these inform preparations and operations this fall?

Felix: Our state took what you could call a broad approach in the spring. We brought together a team of people from different agencies and set up a task force, AccelerateED Task Force, to focus on family, school, and teacher perspectives. The top priority was the security and safety of students. The task force drilled down on the specifics and addressed concerns about technology use. So they looked at what was available and how to give schools instructions on how to use it. 

In the beginning, it was essentially figuring out how to do remote learning. In preparing for the fall, I think they will move forward with the understanding that there is no one size fits all when we are talking about school districts. Some school districts may have the ability to be back in school, whereas others will have to start remotely. This is the biggest takeaway; how the fall will look will entirely depend on your school and location in the state. To my knowledge, privacy has not yet been specifically mentioned as one of the primary priorities, but it is incorporated into students’ overall safety and protection.

Juliana: Do you believe schools, educators, and families are informed about how to protect student privacy in an online video conference setting?

Felix: In the spring, zoombombing was a big issue. Thankfully, the company got ahead of it and fixed the major issues. Still, it did shed light on districts’ need to provide as much communication, training, and resources as possible directly to schools, teachers, and students, so they weren’t signing up for individual accounts. There’s more work to be done to help teachers and students protect themselves and their computers. There is also a push at the state level to provide broadband internet throughout the whole state. The pandemic has opened our eyes in terms of this gap. We found that roughly 30 percent of our students don’t have broadband access. I’m sure there are several other states with populations without internet access. Making sure everyone has access to broadband is probably one of the biggest challenges right now.

Juliana: Did you see the conversation about student privacy change due to the rapid transition to online learning? 

Felix: I think so. Parents and students understand more about privacy and online security. One of the things that the task force has done is allow teachers, parents, and schools to have open communication regarding what tools will be used and some challenges that may come up. This direct communication with parents helps everyone realize that we all have to work together to protect student data. There is also a training aspect to it because new tools are being used to teach online, and with it comes a learning curve for some. Communicating with families, creating space for feedback, and making sure that feedback is taken into consideration in the plan will help things go well. 

Juliana: How should schools consider and prioritize student privacy? 

Felix: Schools should develop their plans in such a way that each of their student’s learning situations can be addressed, wherever possible. Some districts will have students that are brand new to using these products, and as I mentioned, some students don’t even have internet access right now. One of the approaches is identifying where your students are and what resources are available to them. Then, create a strategy to make sure that each of those students can get the same materials as the rest of the class. Some schools are having to resort to paper. They are putting together paper packets and having the parents pick them up. 

Specific to online learning, we want to make sure families and teachers understand that even with all the online tools and instruction, students should not be required to be tuned in online simultaneously. This is a priority if we want to make the education accessible. So, push out the materials and tools so students can access them when they can and submit assignments when they can, instead of sitting in front of the computer the whole day. 

Juliana: What are best practices for protecting student privacy in a remote learning environment?

Felix: One of the most common questions I get is from teachers asking if they are allowed to record virtual classes. The first thing I mention is to consult with their general counsel to make sure they are considering the legal aspects of recording virtual classes. I then try to get them to look at it from pedagogical and privacy perspectives. Schools probably don’t want to set up an environment where students have to be online sitting in front of their computers all day to access the instruction or possibly miss instruction if they aren’t logged in at certain times or can’t connect. So there is a benefit to teachers recording their lessons and making these recordings available to students. But teachers also need to consider ways to keep students from being recorded. If teachers ask students to record themselves, teachers should have students submit these recordings on learning management systems, because like anything else, things do happen, so it’s important to minimize student face time on recordings.

Schools are currently using different platforms to conduct their virtual classes because there is no standard throughout the state. The state is working on standardizing at least one or two different platforms so school districts do not select their own resources individually, but it’s an evolving process. 

Juliana: What are strategies and best practices to help families trust that schools will protect students’ privacy in an online learning environment? 

Felix: Our task force has put together several documents, including a report of over 100 pages. One thing the report talked about was how the spring was emergency learning, not necessarily distance learning. They did significant work on communicating with stakeholders and making sure everyone’s voices were heard. This communication effort and making training available have allowed school districts and parents to feel that things are as best as they can be right now, and to feel comfortable about either going back to in-person instruction or online learning. 

Juliana: What methods are schools considering to monitor attendance and engagement in an online environment? What should schools be cautious of? 

Felix: When you’re in school, there’s a certain number of seat hours in class that is required. We’re finding this hard to translate over to a remote learning environment. Part of what schools are having to do is deconstruct lessons to cover the material but not in the same way it would be covered in an in-person setting; we don’t have that luxury. Schools also have to think about assessing the material and assessing the learning that is happening through a different medium when everything is so new to both teachers and students. Some studies are being done that look at how to do this. The goal is to ensure that if students are participating and making a reasonable effort, they will not get penalized for not demonstrating mastery of basic skills that maybe they normally would have been able to master in a typical classroom setting. So schools are working on how to recalculate what is a passing grade or a successful grade. 

As far as tools that schools are considering using, I’ve heard comments from school districts about tools to check temperatures or biometrics, essentially getting health information to ensure students are not showing COVID-related symptoms. One of our health organization’s recommendations talked about how these tools are not recommended, and so we are staying away from making these a part of our big plan in terms of testing and tracing. 


This interview was conducted by Juliana Cotto on July 24, 2020. It has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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