Nationwide, school districts are embarking on distance learning programs as COVID-19-related school closings are extended, in many cases through the end of the academic year. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, Pub. L. No. 116-136, includes several allowable uses of funds related to distance learning in the $13.23 billion Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund, including:
- Activities, including outreach and service delivery, that support the needs of low-income children, students with disabilities, English learners, minority students, and youths who are homeless or in foster care. CARES Act Section 18003(d)(4)
- Planning and coordination during long term closures, including how to provide technology for online learning for all students. CARES Act Section 18003(d)(8)
- Purchasing hardware, software, and connectivity to provide educational technology that aids in “regular and substantive interaction between students and their classroom instructors, including low-income students and students with disabilities, which may include assistive technology or adaptive equipment.” CARES Act Section 18003(d)(9)
- Planning and implementing activities related to supplemental or summer learning programs, which could include providing services online, for all student subgroups. CARES Act Section 18003(d)(11)
Officials working to set up distance learning must be sure to abide by federal privacy laws while designing an effective program that will meet the needs of all students, said experts speaking during a recent online presentation, “Classrooms in the Cloud: Student Privacy & Safety During the COVID-19 Pandemic.”
Amelia Vance, director of youth and education privacy with the Future of Privacy Forum, said much of online learning falls within the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act school official exception, which states that it is permissible to disclose a student’s personally identifiable information to an outside party, absent parent consent, so long as it qualifies as a “school official” with a “legitimate educational interest.”
Vance said for services to meet this exception, they must:
- Perform an institutional service or function for which the school would otherwise use its own employees.
- Have a legitimate educational interest in the educational records or personally identifiable information.
- Only use educational records for authorized purposes without redisclosing PII.
- Be under the school’s direct control in its use of educational records or PII.
Vance said the last two points are where many online services fall short. So it is important for officials to review the terms of service, which may allow the service provider to use data for targeted ads or sell the information to outside parties—both of which violate FERPA.
“Generally, tools that are developed for general audiences or workplaces were not designed, most likely, with student privacy laws in mind,” Vance said. “Before engaging in any online platform, do your due diligence and ensure that appropriate privacy protections are in place.”
Charles Hendrix covers education funding and other Title I issues for ESEA Now, a DA sister publication. Links to the documents noted are available to subscribers.