Skip to Content

Equity in Civic Technology, Privacy & Data

Educator Views on Privacy During COVID-19: A Matter of Safety and Well-Being

As government leaders, policymakers, and technology companies continue to navigate the global coronavirus pandemic, CDT is actively monitoring the latest responses and working to ensure they are grounded in civil rights and liberties. Our policy teams aim to help leaders craft solutions that balance the unique needs of the moment, while still respecting and upholding individual human rights. Find more of our work at

The rapid shift to distance learning gave rise to numerous stories of experiences (both positive and negative) using educational data and technology. As my colleague Cody Venzke pointed out, “Zoombombing” has attracted a considerable amount of attention, likely at the exclusion of other student privacy risks. So what is really happening regarding student privacy?

As schools prepare to reopen, CDT sought to understand the current status of privacy risks, especially through the eyes of those most impacted: teachers, parents, and students. We recently released the results of our parent polling (read more here), and the following summary is the next analysis in a series that CDT will be sharing based on focus groups and surveys of critical stakeholders who are all too often not consulted or represented in discussions about education data, technology, and privacy.

CDT conducted four focus groups of educators from across the country who teach students spanning Grades 3-10. The participants represented a mix in years of teaching experience, experience teaching at Title I schools, gender, race, ethnicity, community type (urban / suburban / rural), and attitudes about student data privacy and the role of technology in education.

A Focus on Well-Being and Privacy, Before and During COVID-19

The teachers who participated in our focus groups exhibited a strong focus on the safety and well-being of their students.

  • Student Well-Being: Teachers indicated that ensuring student safety and well-being is a primary driver as to why they chose teaching as a profession. This focus includes academics, but extends well beyond to more holistic concerns. Many of their top concerns involve how their students are doing outside of the classroom—in terms of safety, nourishment, and the support (or lack thereof) they receive at home.
  • Technical Challenges: Teachers explained how distance learning has complicated making direct, one-on-one connections with students. Those who reported the most negative assessments of this time period noted significant technological issues in their districts and limited student participation in online learning.
  • Data Privacy: Issues of data privacy and protecting students’ data are not top-tier concerns for these teachers, and they are not top-of-mind. However, the need to keep student issues private falls directly under the umbrella of protecting student well-being. As such, it is relevant and an important teacher responsibility that incorporates both electronic and hard-copy information. Some teachers expand this category to include the need to teach students about password protection (i.e., not giving anyone their passwords) and other elements of online / internet safety.

School- and District-Level Policies and Practices

Most teachers in our focus groups could not recount the specifics of their school’s data privacy protections and policies; however, they felt comfortable operating within these policies and knew where to direct questions, if they received any.

  • Educator Training: At the beginning of every year, respondents indicated they sign a form or booklet that includes general information about the school’s data privacy protections. However, the amount of training given varied from merely signing a form to attending 3-hour briefings. An incident – such as a data breach or “Zoombombing” – often prompted a meeting or a revision to the policy. Only a few teachers had participated in consistent trainings or were involved in updates to these policies, even during remote schooling.
  • Privacy Staffing: Several respondents explained their school has an IT administrator and / or team (or teacher committee) with the primary job of managing the school’s technology, firewalls, etc. Any questions (from parents or others) teachers cannot answer can be forwarded to these individuals or other administrators. In addition, respondents shared that the school district sets overarching policies about technology, investigates district-wide purchases, and approves programs for school use. There is a procedure in place if a teacher wants to use an online tool in their classroom that does not already reside on the district or school list of approved tools.
  • Privacy and Technology Policies: During COVID-19, privacy and technology policies remained in place. Some districts expanded the list of tools that could be used, and in a few cases, teachers had the freedom to use whatever tools / programs they thought would help engage students during this time, even if the tools had not received formal approval.

The Teachers’ Role in Data Privacy

The teachers who participated in our focus groups saw their roles from a few different perspectives.

  • Special Education: Special education served as a flashpoint in the discussion of the importance of data / information privacy policies and procedures. All teachers agreed with the need to protect this information. Special Education teachers indicated that 504 plans and individualized education programs (IEPs) are legal documents, and even non-special education teachers explained how this information often garnered additional security in their schools (e.g., separate passwords, a locked closet, printing restrictions). There was a heightened sensitivity as to what those documents contained, and respondents concluded those “uninvolved” should not have access to this information.
  • Privacy Mindset: Some teachers indicated the need to be careful with what information they put in an email. To assuage this concern, some teachers relied on teacher-to-teacher conversations for more openness (i.e. no written trail in the information exchange). A few also indicated the importance of being careful when having conversations with parents, especially during COVID-19. For example, Zoom calls can be overheard by people off-screen and not directly involved in the conversation.
  • Questions from Students: In only a very few cases did students ask teachers about their school’s privacy policy, and if such an instance occurred, some teachers said they would use the question as an opportunity to teach or reinforce online / internet safety.

This is the second in a series of analyses of the perspectives of often underrepresented voices in student privacy debates. Stay tuned for more analysis!