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Equity in Civic Technology, Privacy & Data

Homeschooling and COVID-19: Parents as Chief Information and Privacy Officers

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

Due to school closures caused by COVID-19, many parents have unexpectedly found themselves teaching their children instructional content. In fact, an analysis of school districts revealed that, despite the extensive media coverage of video conferencing and recording tools, most districts are not offering any online instruction. Instead, they are offering links to general resources with little guidance to parents on how to use them. Although a recent poll from Gallup indicates that school districts are making significant progress in providing online learning to students, parents who are not receiving school-sponsored online learning options or families who want to supplement their education will need to make decisions about the benefits of edtech and learning applications and their potential privacy risks.

While conversation is wide-ranging about how much parents can and should take on regarding their children’s education in this new environment, some families will clearly have to choose whether and how to use technology to continue their child’s education on their own. Edtech applications can certainly support student learning while schools are closed, especially if parents are balancing working from home while quarantined with their children. However, most parents are not well-equipped to evaluate these products, a job normally shared by chief information and privacy officers in school districts. Gathering information about and vetting these applications would undoubtedly compound the burden put on parents by the shift from learning in school buildings to learning in the home. Terms of service and privacy policies are notoriously long and legalistic, which is why CDT recommends moving away from models of notice and consent to provide consumers with protections and rights that they can’t sign away. 

However, until laws change, parents who are making choices about if and how to use technology to support their children’s learning should focus on three things: 

  • Know your rights: Federal and state law affords certain protections to students and families. If a parent is using a resource that the school provides and with which the school has a contract or agreement, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) will protect any data that is shared with that vendor. It also affords parents certain rights regarding their children’s data, as described in this resource by the U.S. Department of Education, which enforces FERPA. If parents are choosing to use an educational product on their own, the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) protects children under the age of 13 and also provides parents with certain rights as described here by the Federal Trade Commission, which enforces COPPA. Both laws provide certain parental consent, access, correction, and deletion rights to parents.
  • Use existing resources: Using technology in support of student learning is not new, so a number of resources exist that parents can utilize when selecting products that might help their children but do not come at the expense of their privacy. For example, Common Sense Media recently released a resource entitled Wide Open School that is a free collection of, “the best online learning experiences for kids curated by the editors at Common Sense.” This complements their analysis of privacy policies that, in tandem, will allow parents to evaluate the efficacy of certain products and their treatment of student data. 
  • Ask your school: Schools and local education agencies have engaged with edtech vendors for years and have experience navigating the promises of technology with potential pitfalls. They have negotiated agreements and evaluated different products and will continue to be an important resource for families. Parents should reach out to school or local education agencies with any questions they have. Examples of common questions that parents have for their children’s schools are described in CDT’s Parent Guide to Privacy

Privacy is not a new concept in education, and federal and state laws have given consideration to parents for decades. Now is the time to lean on those rights, review existing resources that organizations have stood up around them, and seek guidance from organizations that are more experienced in technology and privacy: schools and local education agencies.