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by Maria Wood

In 2020, when schools across the country were forced to abruptly disband in-person learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic, school districts, administrators and teachers scrambled to find technological solutions that would allow for online learning from students’ homes.

Many educators turned to classroom management software that can monitor students’ online behavior. These programs allow teachers to view a student’s screen, seeing what tabs are open and even what websites they visited. If the teacher sees the student is logged onto, say YouTube, the teacher can close that tab.

Although the goal of these systems is to keep students on task and engaged in class, some parents and students feel they place an unwelcome intrusion on their privacy. Going forward, with online learning still a viable option, the challenge for teachers and administrators will be to balance effective online instruction while also preserving student privacy.

Somebody’s watching me

As classroom management tools became more widespread in remote classrooms, parents and students expressed worry about their use. J.P. Kerrane, a 15-year-old freshman in the Boulder Valley school district in Colorado, expressed unease with these programs, telling EducationWeek that the programs make some of his fellow students feel someone is constantly “watching over their shoulder.”

Anisha Reddy is policy counsel with the Youth & Education Privacy Project at the Future of Privacy Forum, a think tank based in Washington, DC that focuses on data privacy issues. Reddy explains that many of the tech tools teachers and districts logged onto while teaching remotely weren’t specifically made for the unique privacy requirements of K-12 students and might not have been properly vetted. One of the biggest privacy risks that Reddy’s organization saw in 2020, while many students were learning remotely, was that teachers could potentially download apps without a full understanding of how those apps protected student privacy.

“There are a lot of unique privacy requirements that apply to student data, and almost every state has a student privacy law in place,” Reddy says. “Some of those states have specific requirements on third-party vendors that schools rely on.”

One benefit that came out of remote learning is that it shone a light on student privacy, Reddy notes. Learning systems vacuum up enormous amounts of data on each student, she says, which comes with the responsibility of how to safeguard that data and ensure it’s used only for school purposes.

In March 2021, for instance, schools in Montclair temporarily deactivated use of the classroom management software GoGuardian Teacher in response to parents’ and students’ concerns over privacy. According to GoGuardian, approximately 20 million students in 14,000 schools nationwide use one of its services. The platform was installed on district-issued Chromebooks. Parents were concerned not only about their children’s privacy but also whether data on their personal devices could be swept up as well. With some systems, personal devices could be affected if they are synced with a school account. For its part, GoGuardian stated that the data it collects is owned by the school district and is not sold to third parties.

Federal, state laws on student privacy

Federal and state governments have taken note of the heightened protection student information demands and have passed laws specifically on student data. Chief among those laws is the Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), which addresses educational technology, or edtech, and student privacy.

Another federal law, the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), pertains to student data privacy as well. It spells out the requirements for managing information on children under the age of 13. Although collection of student data by edtech companies is permitted, those companies can only use that information for educational purposes. The law prohibits the sale of student data for commercial purposes.

Reddy notes in addition to FERPA and COPPA more than 40 states have student privacy laws on the books. The laws vary, but mostly center on what technology districts can use, security requirements, and language that should be in vendor contracts.

In New Jersey, federal and state laws govern the protection and access to student data, including the Open Public Records Act (OPRA), and the New Jersey Pupil Records Act (NJPRA). In 2019, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled student records must be subject to enhanced protection. The ruling stated student records may not be disclosed under the Open Public Records Act even if personal identifiable information (PII) is redacted.

Programs not vetted properly

In the rush to online learning, some districts may not have fully reviewed these platforms to ensure each shielded student privacy in line with federal and state laws. Some weren’t intended for classroom use, while others, like Zoom for Education, are built with FERPA compliance features.

Reddy advises districts to thoroughly evaluate programs before use in the classroom to make sure those extra privacy protections are in place. It’s also vital for districts to communicate with parents on which programs are being used and for what purposes. Much of the debate over classroom monitoring tools centered on the fact that parents were unaware of these tools and how they were being implemented in the classroom.

“Schools districts should have a point person to make sure teachers are aware of questions that could come up, and make sure they’re equipped to answer those questions, or direct parents to someone who can,” Reddy says.

Students have a stake, too

Juliana Cotto, who is also policy counsel with the Youth & Education Privacy Project at the Future of Privacy Forum, recommends teachers talk to students about online learning programs. Younger students, for instance, may not be aware of what can be seen in the background on Zoom sessions. Cotto suggests instructing them on which settings and options they can use as well.

Since so much of their lives are lived online, Cotto points out that it is an opportunity for teachers to educate students about how to be responsible in a digital world. For example, she suggests asking students: How do you have safe relationships online where you haven’t met the person? What are safe relationships? What does safe information sharing look like?

Students should also have the option to turn off their camera, Cotto says. Teachers prefer the camera on because it replicates in-person learning. A student’s perspective, however, is quite different, she notes. For one, a student may not be comfortable with a teacher peering into their current living space.

“The ability to see their own face can also make students overly conscious of their reactions and appearance,” Cotto says. “It might be a distraction from learning and engaging in the class.”

Another aspect of student privacy is social media monitoring. Many districts have employed software that monitors a student’s social media posts to discover if a student may be considering self-harm or harm to others. Although this, in theory, could prevent a tragedy, sometimes innocent statements by students may be flagged, leading to unnecessary intrusions into their lives.

Reddy says students should be aware of these monitoring tools and how and why they are being used. “Schools shouldn’t unilaterally implement these tools without understanding how students feel about this kind of monitoring.”

According to Cotto, knowing monitoring tools are in place could have the unintended consequence of deterring students from seeking help.

“If a student were to know their search history was being monitored that might prevent them from seeking out services they might need,” Cotto says. “The monitoring could have a chilling effect.”

An EdWeek Research Center national survey revealed seven out of 10 educators plan to offer remote learning options for students even when the pandemic is over. If schools continue online learning, districts will be better prepared for it this time around, Cotto predicts. The pandemic and the use of technology brought up new questions.

“The silver lining could be the ability to foster a culture of privacy and an understanding how privacy intertwines with other school priorities,” Cotto says.

Discussion Questions

  1. How do you feel about classroom management software that allows for the monitoring of your screen time/habits?
  2. What expectations should Americans have with respect to data privacy in today’s world where many of our movements are tracked through social media, cellphones, etc.? Explain your answer.
  3. How important is data privacy to you? Explain your answer.

Glossary Words

redacted— to censor or obscure text for legal or security purposes.

This article originally appeared in the fall 2021 edition of The Legal Eagle.