K–12 Data Privacy During a Pandemic
K-12 privacy expert Amanda Vance shares the four questions that still matter: What data is being collected? Who has access to it? How will it be shared? And how will it be protected?
- By Dian Schaffhauser
of Privacy Forum
has long helped educators understand the privacy issues involved in
the technologies they rely on in their districts and schools.
Recently, Senior Counsel and Director of Youth & Education
Privacy, Amelia Vance, talked with THE Journal about the new kinds of
concerns that have cropped up in an environment where virtual
teaching and learning has become the de facto form of education.
interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Journal: Let's just talk about the disclosure of health information.
What are the main aspects to keep in mind there as schools are
putting together their plans and policies?
it comes to reopening plans, we've seen a lot of schools pick up the
[Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's] guidelines
or similar guidelines and try to implement them and build them into
their reopening policies, which makes a lot of sense. These are the
health experts, right? But they're not necessarily drilling down a
level and thinking about what it means when you collect health
information on a regular basis or when you require students or
parents or school staff to enter how they're feeling every day or
their health symptoms.
information are you requiring people to turn over? Have you built a
system that incentivizes people to tell the truth? Are they going to
trust that the information that you're collecting is just to prevent
COVID-19 infections, that it's not going to be used to disadvantage
their child or harm or stigmatize their family within the community?
Are you keeping in mind the many symptoms that are similar to
COVID-19 or aspects of symptoms of COVID-19 that would indicate
pretty sensitive things? A high temperature could indicate that
someone recently had surgery, that they might be pregnant, that they
might have a sexually transmitted infection.
you suggest they do?
super special formula here. It really goes back to the central
principles of privacy and fairness that have been around since at
least the 1970 s--and many of them way before then.
Information Practice Principles,
which were codified in part of the Family
Educational Rights and Privacy Act
and pretty much every federal agency and many state agencies and many
international laws, provides a basic framework for data governance.
It says four things:
should be transparent about what information is collected;
should make sure that information collected for one purpose will not
be used for another purpose;
should be adequate security and that only the people who need access
to the information will get it; and
the information that you need will be collected in the first place.
plenty of excellent resources for schools to adopt if they don't
already have a data governance plan. A new fabulous report on data
was just released from the National
Forum on Education Statistics
that features case studies from state and local education agencies.
There are so
many materials that schools can use. And it's not so much about doing
a detailed analysis. It's about asking the questions in the first
place and just going that level deeper as schools are creating their
plans that hinge on new data collection or adoption of technology:
What data? How is it going to be used? How will it be protected? How
will it be shared?
itself helps to build a policy and helps schools decide what should
or should not happen and how you gain that trust from parents and
students so you get the information you need to keep the community
what you're explaining here has been needed for a long time, but now
there's this extra level of technology tracking. Schools are talking
about taking student and staff temperatures as they enter the
building or running their own contact tracing systems. Can you bring
us up to date here about what schools should consider as they update
their plans to take those kinds of things into consideration?
where it starts to get more complicated. But those underlying
principles, those underlying questions that need to be asked and
written into a policy, remain the same.
comes to something like thermal scanning or temperature checks,
especially with a lot of the technology that's spamming administrator
in-boxes right now, there should be initial threshold questions:
been plenty of articles, for example, on thermal scans and the fact
that they may not actually provide the information needed or may
provide too many false flags to help with diagnosing cases of
coronavirus because you're not measuring the core temperature of
to end up having students show high temperatures who just worked out;
who have higher temperatures due to a different sensitive medical
condition; who have troubles for whatever reason regulating their
temperature. They're going to show up on the heat map as these red
colored blobs. And once you introduce this technology, somehow
someone is going to have to do pull every one of those students or
staff aside and ask them invasive questions about their health. Once
you actually take a temperature in the traditional way, you may find
that was a false flag.
instances of students who have been bullied and families that have
had graffiti put on their house when people think that they have the
coronavirus. At the end of the day this may end up being more
stigmatizing than it will be useful in actually finding out about
really start with that threshold question--does it even work?--you
can eliminate about 90 percent of all of the solicitations in
in-boxes. And then from there going back to those basic principles of
springtime schools adopted technology willy-nilly just to deliver
instruction. But people may not be so forgiving in the fall about
that. What do teachers and school leaders have to keep in mind about
the tools they adopt for instruction?
haven't necessarily had the time or had the money to prepare for this
fall. There's no certainty and many are trying their best to make
in-person instruction happen. The pedagogical strategies and
approaches and which tools to use--a lot of that changes when you're
doing online learning versus in-person learning. Most teachers
haven't been provided with paid professional development on this. So,
if they've done any professional development on this at all over the
summer, they've basically been working for free. Schools haven't had
a robust approach where they've been evaluating for the best and most
secure and privacy-protective online learning software. They've been
hoping that things will reopen and that they're able to have a fairly
normal or closer-to-normal school year.
have [a few weeks] before most schools open. I would hope schools are
looking for opportunities to simplify what they're offering for
online instruction and to try to mitigate as much as possible that
"wild west" that was happening as many educators were
adopting technology--perhaps for the first time--and almost certainly
without any training in privacy or in education technology use or
online learning in general. It really is important to start using the
time we have now to figure out how to make those processes easier so
there isn't a privacy backlash down the road.
is keeping you up at night on the education front?
One of the
big things that I think a lot of folks aren't thinking carefully
about yet is the privacy implications of the monitoring that in many
ways has to happen in providing online education. This takes the form
of several different things. How do you take attendance in a virtual
environment? There were so many kids that dropped off the map, and
educators had no idea where they were; if they were OK; if they were
safe; in some cases where they had been on a lesson, did they log
into that lesson and then walk away to play a video game?
many financial incentives for schools to make sure that students are
in attendance. There are requirements for equity that schools are
serving students equitably, that they are making sure there aren't
disproportionate outcomes as much as possible with students from
different backgrounds. And there are reporting requirements related
to how they're serving those students.
we're still in the middle of the pandemic.
And so there
was a ton of monitoring that was already happening in the spring.
Pretty much all school-owned devices have some sort of monitoring
software on them due to the Children's
Internet Protection Act,
where if a school receives E-rate funding, they need to monitor both
the internet network as a school but also the devices provided to
students to make sure that inappropriate content isn't being
ballooned since this law was passed in 2000. Then, monitoring meant
the teacher was looking over the student's shoulder in the computer
lab. Today it means everything from light-touch software that sends
an email to the principal when a student uses a swear word or looks
up porn on the internet using their school device to intense levels
of surveillance that monitor everything a student types and scans and
it uses some sort of machine learning or artificial intelligence to
try to detect bullying or suicidal ideation or school threats.
districts already have this in place, scanning school devices but
also school accounts in many cases--for Microsoft Office 365
Education, Google 's G Suite for Education, student email accounts
and the documents they have stored in the cloud, the websites they
visit while they're logged in.
students are at home, they're obviously using these devices even
more--especially students who may not have had their own devices
before. Now, when they want to look up something online, participate
in a forum for students who may be LGBTQ or look up safe sex, or even
something innocuous like research on breast cancer, which some of the
filtering software has banned in the past, all these things could
raise a flag.
who have their own personal devices--the school won't know about it.
Those students who are now relying on school devices are even more
likely to be using that device more often and to get a whole bunch of
red flags from the monitoring software about the activities that they
may be doing and how they may be using that device--even though their
peers are doing exactly the same things, just not on a school device.
also a lot of schools looking at using the learning analytics that
are built into a lot of ed tech products, that weren't necessarily
used too much in K-12 schools before. They're used more often at the
higher education level. Professors get reports from Blackboard or
Canvas or any of the learning management systems, saying, "John
Smith has not logged on to get his homework in three weeks." It
tells you a little thing. It says, "Jane Smith was logged into
the platform for three hours reading this assignment"; or "Sammy
took 20 minutes to take this test."
those things are really useful, especially in pointing out students
who are certainly falling behind or whose schools are having trouble
reaching the people who need interventions. But it is awfully easy
for this to slide into creepy. A lot of these analytics aren't
necessarily indicative of whether a student is participating in class
And just as
teachers and administrators haven't been well trained in privacy,
they generally haven't been trained in how to use ed tech
effectively. They may not understand that these are signals and not
diehard evidence-based recommendations. All of a sudden, they're
going to be diving into the deep end of using these analytics, so
schools can report the things they're required to report.
point a parent or a student is going to notice when a teacher says,
"Hey you're going to fail the assignment because you never
logged into the learning management system," and all of a
sudden, they'll realize, "You're tracking what?" That's a
breach of trust. So maybe the parent decides it's easier to
homeschool, or just not engage with the school this year because it's
not going to be fair, or they'll transfer to a different school or
whatever it may be. [Used poorly,] those analytics can undercut the
trust between the school and parents and students that is essential,
especially right now.
conversations I'm really seeing about this cover what data to collect
and all of the different ways to measure the required things to
report virtually, like attendance. It hasn't dug deep into the next
layer--what shouldn't we collect? How do we make this transparent?
How do we make sure that parents are on board? "Instead of
in-person participation, we're going to have that part of your grade
be you logging into Blackboard, pulling down the homework assignment
or posting a question on the forum." Are you clearly laying out
what students have to do to get to get credit, to get their grade, as
opposed to relying on analytics to tell you things about the students
that they don't even know that they're supposed to do or were tracked
that schools don't care about privacy, or that they are choosing not
to talk about it. It's just that they don't know that they need to
ask the questions in the first place. They're not--and shouldn't
be--privacy experts. They need to be provided with professional
development, with support, with plug-and-play model documents. And,
unfortunately, funding is being cut from schools as opposed to
provided, as uncertainty continues. So, we're really relying on hope
that teachers and administrators will educate themselves in their
spare time--unpaid--about this thing that isn't even on their
have several training
videos and activities for educators
that we've tried to keep fairly short. We also have in a playlist
we're happy to email people if they need access, or even mail them a
thumb drive, as well as slides and activities and resources related
to each topic that they can use to educate themselves or use in
giving presentations on privacy to the teachers that they're working
with, administrators or the school board.
Privacy Compass has also published two new briefs, one on increased
data collection and sharing
and the other on thermal
scans and temperature checks,
intended to provide brief explanations for educators of the issues
involved in these subjects.
Our hope is
that by providing resources that people can watch in the five minutes
they have for lunch or in between other things, they can start to
build up a base of knowledge that will help them not only deal with
these concrete, really sticky issues around the pandemic but also
with all the future technologies and issues that are sure to come
their way as education continues to evolve.
Find more at
including a list of COVID-19-specific