10 keys for protecting student data during COVID

Final decisions about health and learning should be made by humans, advocates say
By: | October 27, 2020
(GettyImages/Halfpoint Images)

Addressing trauma and discrimination are key strategies for protecting student data as the unrelenting COVID pandemic requires schools to stick with online learning, advocates said.

A coalition of education, healthcare, disability rights and civil liberties organizations is now providing some guidance as educators are adopting new technology to collect learning, attendance and health data.

A list of 10 Principles for Student Data Privacy and Equity was released Tuesday by The Future of Privacy Forum, National PTA, National Education Association, Southern Poverty Law Center, the National Association of School Psychologists, and the National Center for Learning Disabilities, among other organizations.

“The pandemic is not over, and the challenges facing K-12 schools aren’t, either,” said Amelia Vance, the Future of Privacy Forum’s director of youth and education privacy. “We have a long way to go, and the success of data and technology-driven efforts to educate students during this time depends on trust and ensuring adequate privacy and equity safeguards are in place.”


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Educators should prioritize equity and ensuring all students are protected equally during the pandemic, added said Jennifer Mathis, the deputy legal director of the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law.

“This is an extraordinarily challenging time and it is more important than ever to ensure to guard against unfounded assumptions about students with disabilities that lead to segregation and unequal education,” Mathis says.

Here’s an overview of the 10 data privacy principles:

  1. Support inclusion: ​Schools, for example, should not require students to attend classes in-person based on race, color, disability, sexual orientation or any additional protected statuses. Schools should instead assess each student’s individualized needs in light of COVID-19.
  2. Address trauma: ​Students having difficulty reacclimating to the school environment should be provided with trauma support and not be penalized based on an assumption that they will engage in disruptive behavior. Students should be placed in the least restrictive environment and most integrated setting appropriate.
  3. Ensure technology and data use is evidence-based:​ Any technology—including video-conferencing tools, contact tracing applications and temperature scanning—should be evidence-based and deployed in consultation with experts, students, families and educators, among other stakeholders. Schools should ensure faculty and staff are using only district-approved technologies in their classes.
  4. Only collect necessary health data:​ Collection of health information of students, their families, or staff must be narrowly tailored to the information necessary to determine whether an individual has or does not have COVID-19.  Data must be collected, used, shared, and retained to the minimum extent required by law.
  5. Contextualize health symptoms:​ When screening students and staff for COVID-19 symptoms, sch0ols should consider that many other illnesses or disabilities that do not put others at risk may cause high temperatures and other symptoms. Health status inquiries can be extremely sensitive, and students or school staff should not have to disclose health information where others can overhear.
  6. Create data governance policies: This system should identify the individual or group responsible for decision-making regarding what data is collected, who has access, how the data will be used and shared, and when it will be destroyed.
  7. Limit sharing personal information: ​Any information shared with state and local public health officials should be limited to a documented public health purpose. Schools should only share de-identified or aggregated information with the broader school community and the general public about COVID-19 diagnoses or likely cases in the school community.
  8. Be transparent: Schools should develop clear, publicly available processes outlining how the data gathered by schools will be collected, used, shared, and protected. Students and families should be provided with clear, timely information about how students will be monitored and evaluated in a virtual classroom.
  9. Final decisions should be made by humans:​ Decisions should never be made solely based on results obtained from technology. Technologies used to combat COVID by, for example, analyzing symptoms or tracking location, can produce false positives. Similarly, information gleaned from virtual learning technologies—such as learning analytics indicating a student’s attentiveness or engagement—should not be the sole measure of performance or ability.
  10. Empower students and families: Students and families should have access to the information collected about them during the COVID-19 pandemic, and an opportunity to appeal individualized educational or health decisions that rely on this information.

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DA’s coronavirus page offers complete coverage of the impacts on K-12.


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