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 28, Juliana Cotto, a policy fellow on FPF’s youth and education team, spoke with Kim Nesmith, Data Governance and Privacy Director for Louisiana Department of Education, about video conferencing tool policies, administering mental health screeners to students, and determining which families have adequate internet access.
Juliana: What are lessons learned from online learning last spring? How should they inform preparations and operations this fall?
Kim: One of the biggest lessons learned is that school systems need to be able to pivot on a dime. Some states were ready to do that and go virtual. These schools were already hosting some aspects of student education virtually on occasion and so were much better positioned. Unfortunately, other states were not as prepared and had to address students and families without devices. Part of being prepared was having policies that schools had time to vet. For example, did you have a policy for virtual video classrooms? Can people record these virtual classes? Teachers immediately had to deal with these situations, and they didn’t have a guidebook or a framework from which to work. They were also using any tool they could get their hands on. So another part of being prepared was having tools ready that you want your teachers to use. Moving forward, schools should consider, possibly every semester, walking through a virtual school day, maybe using teachers instead of kids, but a walk through to make sure everything that needs to be thought through has been.
Juliana: Do you believe schools, educators, families, and students are now informed about how to protect student privacy in a video conference class setting?
Kim: I think we’re in a better place, but we are still in a world where teachers have yet to be back in the classrooms or buildings for administrators to work things through thoroughly. So there still may be some teachers out there who are not adequately informed. School systems are very stressed about reopening guidelines: six feet apart, masks or no masks, transporting kids on school buses, etc. Video conferencing tools rank pretty low on this list of priorities. I’m not sure that, across the board, people are better prepared.
In Louisiana, I just modified guidance again today on video conferencing, what consent looks like, and things schools should consider. An interesting aspect of video conferencing that is coming up is in regards to teacher observations. How do you conduct observations either for teacher preparation programs or for the standard principal evaluations? It’s not like people can walk from one classroom to another, poke their heads in, and complete multiple observations in one day. I imagine people will want to record their lessons and share these recordings for the purpose of observations. This is something that will need to be addressed.
Juliana: In your state, what were the conversations about student privacy before COVID-19? Have you seen the conversation change since? How do you believe it will continue to evolve?
Kim: Folks should be very concerned about privacy, but it feels like they’re so worried about everything else (feeling unstable, not feeling safe) that I don’t think privacy is getting the attention it would if the world were calmer. In a more normal setting, the thought of school taking place via video classrooms would freak out most parents. But instead, the view is, “we have to stay home, we have to wear masks, and I don’t want my kid to get sick.” So I don’t think privacy is getting the consideration that it should because folks are overwhelmed.
In terms of how the conversation will evolve, I think folks will become more okay with the uncertainty. Then, there’s going to be more concerns. So I do think it’s going to come back full circle. And we have to get ahead of it because who knows when it’s going to explode, like the inBloom case; everyone thinks they’re doing okay, but then suddenly, the world becomes very concerned. This may happen here, and we need to stay ahead of it.
Juliana: What are best practices for protecting student privacy in a remote learning setting?
Kim: One of the things we wanted to make sure was that teachers were prepared to mute or cut off student video quickly if needed. Something else we put in our guidance is the concept that school officials and teachers are mandatory reporters. If school staff see something, they have a responsibility to go not to school administrators but to the department of children and family services. We added that into our guidance: if you see something that brings you concern, you must immediately report. This doesn’t always work hand in hand with privacy. Students and families have a right to privacy, but our staff has a responsibility to report certain things. The tension between the two is difficult, especially during remote learning at home.
Juliana: What are strategies and best practices for building trust with families and students regarding how schools will protect their privacy?
Kim: You have to proactively communicate with families and let them know what you’re doing. A specific example is that given the national concern for student social-emotional health and trauma during COVID-19, schools are considering administering mental health screeners. Most folks aren’t aware of the Protection of Pupil Rights Amendment (PPRA). I just had an email this morning where a stakeholder believed parents could opt out of mental health screeners. I had to notify them that no, this is a situation where parents must opt in. If you do not have explicit consent, you cannot administer this survey. When it comes to administering mental health screeners, it is crucial to speak with families about what you’re doing and why you’re doing it, to build that trust—so letting them know that we want to help and support their child but that we also want them to be aware and comfortable. And if they’re not comfortable, we won’t administer it to their child. Transparency is critical right now because we are pushing the boundaries of privacy everywhere, especially when you consider that schools will possibly be collecting family members’ health symptoms. With everything going on and all the heightened concerns and fears that people have, being transparent is beyond critical.
Juliana: What trends in technology do you believe we’ll see schools adopting this fall?
Kim: I think you’re going to see a national push for strengthening broadband throughout the nation. I believe that internet connection and devices should be as common as water and electricity in our homes. Kids are disadvantaged when they don’t have access to internet and devices. It’s ridiculous that there are whole communities without devices or internet connection in this day and age.
If you have a child’s address—just the address, not attached to the student—you can then put it into an internet provider’s system, and they can recommend what provider to use if you are going to implement MiFi. So, for example, at this address you should use Verizon because there is no AT&T coverage here. I really want to be able to give all addresses to all of the providers so they can run them through their systems and tell me who has internet and who each provider can service. Unfortunately, this can’t happen, for understandable reasons, to protect families’ privacy from bad actors and malicious use. There is a Federal Communications Commission law about proprietary information that says providers can tell me whether an address has service, but they can’t tell me if it’s internet service or phone service or at what internet speed. This makes it incredibly difficult to ensure every child has internet access to learn virtually.
You can administer surveys to families about their internet access, but we found responses that were not entirely accurate. We ran some addresses from our survey responses and found that 60 percent had internet but told us they did not. So, you don’t know the full truth of who has internet and who doesn’t and who can afford it and who can’t.
We are creating hotspots in locations where people can pull in to that parking lot or wherever and download what they need so they can then go home and work asynchronously, come back, and upload. For the very rural areas where there is no internet access, you either have to do that or get a cell tower on wheels and bolster the cell signal in the area. Until broadband is throughout the U.S., you will have kids who don’t have internet access, and in a remote learning environment, they will have to drive somewhere to access their education.
This interview was conducted by Juliana Cotto on July 28, 2020. It has been edited and condensed for clarity.