A Conversation with Whitney Phillips About Student Privacy During COVID-19

A Conversation with Whitney Phillips 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 22, Juliana Cotto, a policy fellow on FPF’s youth and education team, spoke with Whitney Phillips, Chief Privacy Officer for the Utah State Board of Education, about monitoring attendance and engagement in a remote learning environment and key considerations for implementing one-to-one devices. 

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

Whitney: I am speaking on behalf of myself and not on behalf of the Utah State Board of Education. Many people call what happened last spring a shift to remote learning, but I think emergency remote learning is a more accurate term. What happened in the spring was by no means normal, and it all happened very suddenly. So, saying we shifted to online learning or distance learning does a disservice. There are entire master’s degree programs dedicated to creating online learning programs. 

It was understandable that privacy was sacrificed to some degree when very immediate emergency needs arose, but this was not necessarily nefarious. Teachers focused on continuing their teaching and connecting with their students, not worrying about the privacy or security settings of tools. I know, for example, we had some teachers who, in a rush to get information out to parents, posted their links to a Zoom meeting on Instagram, with no password protection. Some districts are mature in online remote learning, with robust IT departments and processes for vetting tools. They were a lot more prepared for this switch, but others were not. Educators now know there is at least a possibility they will be teaching online either fully or in part, and so we encourage them to work with their IT departments about what tools are permissible and essential privacy setting considerations. 

Juliana: Do you believe schools, families, and educators are more informed about how to protect student privacy?

Whitney: Yes, I do think they are more informed. Some educators were hesitant to use any video call products, like Zoom. They were nervous about being able to see into a student’s home and background during a video call. If a parent or another student was listening in, was that okay? Are video calls considered an education record and, therefore, protected by FERPA? They probably wouldn’t ask that exact question but along those lines. Now there is a more balanced view, so yes, they can use these tools, just in a particular way. 

Juliana: Has the conversation about student privacy changed due to the rapid transition to online learning? How do you believe it will evolve? 

Whitney: What happened last spring pointed to a lot of gaps that exist from a compliance point of view. It’s still unclear whether conferencing software creates an education record, but this conversation will continue. The next questions are, can parents have access to that record, is it prohibited from being redisclosed, and is it an education record if you are recording or having it maintained by the school? 

Juliana: How should schools consider and prioritize student privacy? 

Whitney: Schools need to consider notifying parents of their rights and being more transparent about the tools they are going to use. And, obviously, schools need to vet the tools that students will be using. The tools may be slightly different than in the past, depending on whether they are planning to continue having remote learning. But I don’t think the overall priority at the beginning of the year changes that much for privacy, other than there’s just a lot more at stake in losing trust in schools and providing a safe environment for their students. When schools are transparent, have policies in place, and are mindful of what tools they will use, it will pay off in the end, especially when it comes to building trust. I don’t know if other states have these questions, but many of our districts and charter schools are concerned about their enrollment counts for this fall. Enrollment aligns with funding. Schools that learn to adapt and maintain trust will be more successful. 

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

Whitney: Schools should have direct control over the use and maintenance of education records shared with any online learning tools, and these tools should be vetted. Schools should also have conversations with students and parents on how to protect their own privacy, for example, thinking about when it is advisable to have the mic muted or webcam turned off—so teaching families and students how to navigate these tools and think about privacy and security. 

Juliana: How should schools consider tools that monitor attendance, engagement, participation, and behavior in an online setting? What should schools be cautious of? 

Whitney: This is a tough question. What do we mean by online learning? Is it a weekly Google Meet? That’s really different than 20 hours in front of a webcam. Or is it participation in a course that is self-paced? If a student logs in to a website, does it really mean they are present? Students could be logged on, muted, and watching Netflix at the same time. These questions are difficult. Attendance means something different depending on the amount of time we expect students to be present. It’s also going to depend on state-specific expectations for attendance. I know in Utah, the state requires a certain number of dates and hours of instruction, but what is that going to look like, moving forward? Are they going to continue to uphold these requirements? Funding is also wrapped into this because student attendance impacts funding. So the question of what attendance means becomes increasingly important. I don’t know how different it will look than how it would in person; you will still have teachers reaching out to families if there are participation or attendance issues. But I do know that we have students that are missing right now. Districts and charter schools reached out to connect with these students but didn’t hear back from them. This is true in other states as well and is a huge concern. 

I also have three kids in the education system. Two of them did really well with the transition to online learning. They were able to self-pace and were self-motivated through to the end of the year. But one of my kids was completely disinterested. He ended up taking the GED and getting done with school. He’s a smart kid, but he just wasn’t engaged in remote learning. I’ve heard across the board that some students loved the online learning model, rose to the occasion, and even preferred it. But other students didn’t like it at all and had a hard time adjusting. 

Juliana: What technology trends do you believe schools will adopt this fall?

Whitney: I imagine there will be a larger push for one-to-one devices. I’ve been asked for model policies on one-to-one devices because not all of our schools have that. In addition to the device, it is also important to provide internet access and tech training. I have a staff member whose focus is solely on privacy and equity and she is looking into the training aspect of one-to-one devices. Even if you hand parents and families a computer and a hotspot, that does not necessarily give them access to an online education. There are other needs, like being spoken to in their native language or walked through the functions.


This interview was conducted by Juliana Cotto on July 22, 2020. It has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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