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Covid school closings raise privacy concerns for students and teachers

Punishing students for at-home conduct during online classes can feel especially invasive when schools provide no transparency or communication.
Lauryn Morley, a substitute teacher for the Washington Waldorf School in Bethesda, Md., works from home in April in Arlington, Va.Olivier Douliery / AFP - Getty Images file

Back to school season looked very different this fall: The vast majority of U.S. students attended some portion of their school online, yet some schools still expect students to comply with many of the same rules and standards they would enforce on campus. And with a tough winter and spring ahead — and Covid-19 cases spiking to dangerous levels across the country — schools are unlikely to be opening any time soon. If anything, we're likely to see a lot of more schools return to virtual-only teaching. On Wednesday, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio ordered the shutdown of all in-person instruction in the nation's largest school system.

Maintaining certain pre-coronavirus policies makes sense — schools have an obligation to ensure students treat their peers respectfully and are graded fairly, for example.

Maintaining certain pre-coronavirus policies makes sense — schools have an obligation to ensure students treat their peers respectfully and are graded fairly, for example. But other rules are trickier, with schools weighing the competing equities raised by rules governing attendance policies, monitoring students’ virtual workspaces and dress codes (including guidelines for how onscreen family members may dress).

What could possibly go wrong? As it turns out, a lot. Trying to create equitable, practical rules for online learning during a pandemic is hard. Enforcing those rules is even harder, as schools struggle to find resources to help students access online classes and train educators in effective online teaching practices. Schools are also struggling to determine whether it is appropriate to use new technologies to keep tabs on students, and how to implement them.

For example, we all know schools have commonsense rules that prohibit guns in school. And many bar students from bringing toy guns to class. But schools do not typically police how children play with toy weapons and BB guns at home. What happens when online classrooms cause policies about guns at school to collide with students joining classes via video from home?

A Baltimore school called the police in June after someone took a screenshot during a virtual class of what a police officer later determined were BB and toy guns in a student’s bedroom. The student’s family is planning an invasion of privacy lawsuit against the district.

Colorado Springs administrators called the police in September after a Black seventh grader with ADHD was spotted playing with a toy gun during an online class. According to The Washington Post, the gun was “obviously” a toy, but the school still shared a classroom recording of the incident with the school resource officer before contacting the student’s parents. The student was suspended for five days for bringing a “facsimile of a firearm to school”— even though he was never actually on school property.

This month, the family of a fourth grader sued their New Orleans-area school district after a teacher glimpsed a BB gun in his bedroom during virtual class. The student, who his parents say was merely moving the gun out of the way of his brother, was suspended for six days. The child’s teacher said she thought it was real gun.

Schools must be purposeful about how pre-Covid rules should apply during online learning. Rules requiring students to raise hands before speaking, treat peers with civility, and listen to educators can be seamlessly transitioned to virtual classrooms. Rules about visible toys, bathroom visits and other issues need to be treated with greater nuance and thoughtfulness.

Punishing students for at-home conduct during online classes can feel especially invasive when schools provide no transparency or communication about recording and disciplinary policies. Schools and educators should consider the consequences of online learning policies when developing expectations for how students and families should interact in online classrooms. Both educators and parents want to keep students safe, but not at the expense of their students’ privacy or at the risk of subjecting students to unnecessary harm.

These same considerations apply beyond video classroom policies. For example, as more students learn from home, schools should carefully consider the metrics they use to assess students' attendance, participation and engagement. Without the ability to make in-person observations, educators may rely on data collected from online learning tools, such as the amount of time a student spent logged into a program, and use that information as a proxy for attendance or engagement. While this data can be informative, it’s often far from the whole story.

For example, English language learners, students with disabilities or with limited access to WiFi or online devices, among others, are likely to engage with an online program in a way that looks — and tracks — differently from their peers. Relying on such data without considering the bigger picture may inadvertently and unfairly penalize these students.

Online learning at this scale is still a new experience for schools, educators, parents and students, and everyone wants to make sure students have a safe, secure and robust learning experience. As the school year continues, parents should try to stay informed of the applicable policies designed to support students as they learn online. What are your school's video classroom policies? How will your student be assessed online? What support is available to help improve your student’s digital literacy? Asking questions will raise the profile of these important privacy issues and ensure your student is better positioned to succeed.

Headlines describing the Covid-19 shift to online learning underscore the importance of providing schools with dedicated student privacy resources. But even in the absence of those resources, schools should work to over-communicate relevant privacy policies, rules and practices. Leaving the school community in the dark will only create confusion and mistrust. Schools should be transparent about the policies that apply in the online classroom and provide parents and students an opportunity to voice concerns and ask questions. Additionally, educators must be provided with the training and resources necessary to create a privacy-protective online classroom environment.

Finally, schools and educators must consider the diversity of student needs and circumstances during this extraordinary and unprecedented time, including being mindful of students who may fidget in order to focus, or students without private rooms where they are comfortable turning on a camera. We are still far from normal or the ideal, but with some additional transparency and thoughtfulness, we can make online learning better and more accessible to all students going forward.