I Hope (Some of This) Is the New Normal

I Hope (Some of This) Is the New Normal

Like many of you, I have gradually been adjusting to working remotely in my day job as student privacy auditor at the Utah State Board of Education, but I still miss certainty. I miss places. I miss sending my children to see professional educators and classmates weekday mornings. That arrangement was really working for us.

When I say I hope some of this is the new normal, I am talking about the positive changes I have seen. We have all become experts at hand washing over the past few months (and to be honest, we have been far too relaxed when it comes to hand hygiene and communicable diseases). I hope I never see someone in the men’s room leave without giving their hands a full 20 seconds again. Furthermore, I have been in touch with friends and family I rarely talk to on a daily basis. I have gone on more walks around my neighborhood than I probably ever have before and rediscovered the simple joys of completing a puzzle. I hope that once this crisis is over, I can find the time to continue many of these practices.

The abrupt shift to virtual learning brought countless challenges for educators, but there are benefits as well. I recently spoke with a district IT director here in Salt Lake City about how every student in the district now has access to a Chromebook at home. He said that he hoped that even once in-person classes started again that this level of technology equity would continue. I have a friend who is a middle school librarian in Maryland who said his district’s budget for the next year is going to be largely dedicated to two items: paying teachers (thank goodness) and getting the district to be 1:1. This article in EdScoop by Betsy Foresman also predicts a new age of educational technology equity in the wake of COVID-19. I hope that all of this becomes part of the new normal.

At the Utah State Board of Education, we have noticed another positive: transitioning to online learning has made it so educators who normally have not had to think about privacy suddenly have a lot of questions. The US Department of Education’s Student Privacy Policy Office (SPPO) also received a rush of questions, releasing this document and webinar on the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) and virtual learning in April. Companies we now have to rely on to continue work and classes, like Zoom, are being forced to address privacy and security concerns like never before. I hope that this renewed interest in student privacy continues as part of the new normal.

Perhaps the biggest privacy lightbulb to go off for me though came from outside educational privacy. The current crisis has caught the greater privacy world on the back foot. Governments want real-time location and health data for virtual contract tracing, and there is a lot of grey area as to what is permitted. Schools have largely been free from these conversations for now, though, whenever students start attending class in person again, it would be easy to see local departments of health wanting to know which students are staying home sick or teachers being encouraged to enter information into a contract tracing app on the student’s behalf without parental consent. Maybe some of you are already using a virtual contact tracing app (personal confession, I am). An idea from these conversations that really stuck with me is that these apps need to have strong privacy protections even though all the information is collected consensually. I do not think this is generally the mindset in educational privacy. With the way FERPA and many state privacy laws are written, we often think of consent as something of a golden ticket or “Get out of jail free” card: if a FERPA exception does not clearly apply or if a website’s terms of service clearly do not meet a direct control standard, then you should get the parent to sign off on it. Then privacy magically disappears, and you can do whatever you want. I hope that the educational privacy world can also embrace this concept: we should adopt technology that incorporates privacy by design and by default regardless of how data sharing is permitted by FERPA.

Ultimately, this is a precarious time where all of us have to rely on the collective actions of others and researchers testing the efficacy of various treatments and vaccine candidates. That is all mostly out of our control, but when it comes to educational technology and privacy, there is a lot within our power. I hope that as we move toward equity with educational technology, this renewed interest in student privacy continues. Furthermore, I hope that this renewed interest empowers us as local and state privacy professionals and advocates to promote technology that puts privacy first and not as an afterthought.

David Sallay is the student data privacy auditor at the Utah State Board of Education and a contractor for the Future of Privacy Forum. In both of these roles, he is involved in developing training materials, videos, blogs, and other guidance resources for compliance with educational privacy laws.

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