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Districts Implement Lessons from Spring Emergency Online Learning

By Samantha Cleaver

Last of a series.

School districts across the country spent the summer hedging bets on how the 2020-21 year would begin amid COVID-19.

Now, as students fill backpacks to return to school in-person or online, Digital Privacy News is examining how this year will impact students’ and teachers’ privacy.

“We are behind the eight-ball,” said Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute. “These are conversations we should have been facilitating in May and June.”

Today’s Digital Privacy News report examines what school districts have learned from the spring online learning season brought on by COVID.

When Loudoun County Public Schools in Virginia had to shift to emergency learning in the spring, Vincent Scheivert, assistant superintendent for digital innovation, found that the available applications often weren’t ready — particularly when it came to privacy.

At the time, Scheivert and his team chose to use only applications they already had tight control over, and those that teachers and students already felt comfortable using.

“We were able to regroup and then re-institute all the appropriate processes.”

Vincent Scheivert, Loudoun County Public Schools, Va.

Still, the spring was a challenge. Besides dealing with teachers using applications that did not meet district standards, they saw an increase in phishing attacks.

The summer provided some time to regroup.

“We were able to regroup and then re-institute all the appropriate processes,” Scheivert told Digital Privacy News.

This fall, Loudoun County will return to school online. Scheivert and his team have been getting everyone back in sync with district procedures.

They’ve increased security at all levels, including their capacity to defend against attacks.

“Our lesson learned is to start small.”

Lisa Lund, Denver Public Schools.

“We also have a more robust approach to deal with data-loss prevention,” Scheivert said. That should stop teachers from inadvertently sharing data.

As the academic year starts in earnest around the nation, more than 50% of students will begin online. And, some schools that started in-person already have switched to online because of new COVID cases.

The public conversation around opening schools has focused on physical safety and protocols, said Larry Fruth, executive director of A4L Community (A4LC), a network of school districts and vendors headquartered in New Albany, Ohio.

But, said Fruth, conversations about digital privacy have been happening at the district level. Districts have taken lessons from the spring in reviewing and revamping privacy for the fall, but challenges remain — some familiar, some new — experts tell Digital Privacy News.

Starting Small

When Denver Public Schools switched from in-person to virtual instruction, their list of online tools grew by the thousands.

Lisa Lund, director of educational technology and library services, saw the number of tools teachers were using grow to 7,000.

“Our lesson learned is to start small,” she said.

This is similar to what happened across the country.

In March and April, teachers rushed to online learning and adopted technology and applications that had not been built around student privacy, said Anisha Reddy of the Future of Privacy Forum (FPF) in Washington.

“Everyone is talking about privacy.”

Libbi Garrett, California IT in Education.

This led to extreme privacy concerns, including “Zoombombed” lessons.

But this fall, Denver Public Schools is using fewer tools, said Lund: two learning-management systems, Google Suite and a few others.

The district has signed privacy agreements with each vendor and has trained teachers with the expectation that these will be used for fall instruction.

Having fewer applications helped Lund stay focused through three pivots over the summer — as district officials debated returning to school in person, partially remote, and finally, fully remote.

“We’re trying to be more intentional,” Lund told Digital Privacy News, “and teachers have, so far, appreciated our narrow focus and purchasing things from a central level.”

Behind-the-Scenes Changes

Among districts, talk about privacy has increased.

“A lot of the districts that are going back to school face-to-face are now more aware of their digital ecosystem and what it should be protecting,” said Libbi Garrett, resource program specialist with California IT in Education (CITE) and an administrator with the California Student Privacy Alliance.

“Everyone is talking about privacy.”

“We’ve seen a lot of educators focus on how they can secure their video classroom and setting more security settings.”

Anisha Reddy, Future of Privacy Forum.

Districts and individual schools may have new protocols or preparation around this issue, said Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, but that has not made it into the public discussion.

“It’s not clear that anyone has done a good public job in terms of explaining how they’ve rethought their approach to this,” Hess told Digital Privacy News.

Linda Carling, senior associate director of the Center for Technology in Education at the Johns Hopkins University (JHU), said that going forward, “districts may need to be prepared to communicate how they are ensuring that they’re protecting student data.”

Hess called for greater transparency.

“In a situation like this,” he said, “it is useful if public entities are explaining what they’ve done and how they’ve done it — and we’ve seen hardly any of that.”

Are Districts Really Ready?

The question of district readiness doesn’t have a straightforward answer, FPF’s Reddy said.

Each of the more than 13,000 school districts nationwide is at a different place in online learning, from fully prepared to quickly pivoting from in-person to remote. That means teachers also will have varying levels of training and readiness, she told Digital Privacy News.

With Zoom and other online meeting tools, teachers are more aware of privacy settings.

“It’s not clear that anyone has done a good public job in terms of explaining how they’ve rethought their approach to this.”

Rick Hess, American Enterprise Institute.

“We’ve seen a lot of educators focus on how they can secure their video classroom and setting more security settings,” Reddy said.

Some concerns remain from the spring, however.

For example, the sheer number of apps that are available and how teachers may use them without considering privacy.

“Districts are learning from the spring to identify the tools that teachers need to teach virtually,” said JHU’s Carling, “but I also see that teachers are looking for additional tools that they can be relative and reach students.

“I’m concerned that teachers aren’t equipped.”

“I’m concerned that teachers aren’t equipped.”

Linda Carling, Johns Hopkins University.

Training teachers in online learning — something that has never been a priority, Reddy said — will be a focus for the fall.

Districts, A4LC’s Fruth observed, are trying to figure out the obligation of teachers when it comes to privacy.

But one thing that will continue is parents’ increasing role in education and privacy, experts said.

Parents have driven some of the conversation, said CITE’s Garrett, particularly around improving school communication that meets privacy standards.

Unfortunately, noted Carling, “it might take more examples of privacy challenges or parents complaining or asking questions for these things to be addressed.”

Samantha Cleaver is an education writer in Charlotte, N.C.

What Parents Should Do

Parents must ask questions about the learning tools students are using.

Here are some questions that experts say should be asked:

  • What technology is the district using this year?
  • What vendors do you have agreements with? 
  • How are the tools and applications being vetted for privacy? 
  • What data is being collected from apps?
  • With whom is that information being shared?
  • How long is the data stored and when is it deleted?

— Samantha Cleaver

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