Education

Here’s How Districts Should Handle Privacy Considerations in the COVID Era

By Alyson Klein — October 27, 2020 2 min read

District leaders have to deal with a lot these days, from figuring out how to make distance learning technology work to worrying about the homework gap to contact tracing. Student privacy may not be at the top of their list of concerns.

But, especially given how much information is now being collected about student health, there’s a real need to consider privacy, a coalition of about two dozen education, disability rights, civil rights, and privacy advocacy groups say in recommendations released Tuesday. And making sure all students have equal access to opportunity should underlie any decisions they make.

“The students who are most impacted by the pandemic,” including students in special education and English-language learners, are most “at risk of being most impacted by reopening plans,” said Bacardi Jackson, an attorney at the Southern Poverty Law Center. No student, she said, should fear reprisal or be dissuaded from continuing their education because they are worried about how their data will be used.

And Amelia Vance, the director of Youth and Education at the Future of Privacy Forum, worried that, “people will not report their health symptoms if they are not guaranteed that info is going to be kept and used only to deal with the pandemic.”

The groupsncluding the National Association of School Psychologists, the National PTA, and the Southern Poverty Law Center, have a list of suggestions to help district leaders navigate privacy in the COVID-19 age. Here’s a summary:


  1. Support inclusion and no-discrimination: For instance, don’t let kids’ ethnicity, race, sexual orientation, gender, and the like determine who gets to go to school in person and who is online only.
  2. Address trauma: Understand that this is a tough time and kids may act out. Don’t ask a student to do virtual-only education because they are a behavior problem.
  3. Make sure technology is evidence-based: For example, be sure video-conferencing tools, contact-tracing applications, and health-related, wearable technology is carefully evaluated and in compliance with applicable laws.
  4. Only collect necessary health data: Make sure data is collected only if it’s relevant to preventing the spread of COVID-19.
  5. Contextualize health symptoms: A student may have a cough or fever, but they may not have COVID-19. And they may not want to talk about the reasons for their symptoms
  6. Create Data Governance Policies: Schools should have a system that dictates what data is collected, who has access to it, how it’s used, and when it will be destroyed. They also need to make sure data is collected in a nondiscriminatory way.
  7. Limit personal information about things like student health to those who really need to know.
  8. Be transparent: Make sure parents and community members know how data will be collected, shared, and protected.
  9. Let humans make the final decision: Don’t enlist technology to make the ultimate call on whether a student has violated COVID restrictions, or has the virus.
  10. Empower students and families: Give them a chance to see what information has been collected on them and appeal health decisions that rely on that information

Image: Getty

A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.