The highly transmissible omicron variant has exacerbated widespread staffing shortages and strained infrastructure in the American K-12 education system, leaving educators scrambling to revise plans for the start of the spring semester. As school leaders work through difficult decisions, they should continue their focus on training educators on student privacy, engaging communities in decisions about how data and technology are used, and closing the homework gap. Guided by these goals, we suggest steps that educators can take to ensure that education technology is used responsibly and equitably in the latest stage of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Training Educators on Student Privacy
The current staffing crisis, amplified by COVID-19, is straining schools’ typical process for data and technology training. Staff training is essential for maintaining a strong security perimeter and handling student data responsibly, but even before the omicron-related staffing crisis, 34 percent of teachers reported not receiving substantive privacy training. That percentage has certainly increased with the current levels of staff turnover and temporarily absent teachers. In the rush to recruit and onboard new teachers, substitutes, and other staff, student privacy and school system security could be jeopardized if these individuals do not receive adequate training. Moreover, schools may be filling these roles with individuals who have minimal prior background in education data and technology, such as parents and recently graduated students.
Basic technology training can complement these staffing strategies to allow classes to happen while still protecting privacy and security. All individuals filling substitute positions or other school roles are typically required to receive some training, even during the current crisis. To the extent possible, including basic digital hygiene and privacy practices in this training will go a long way in minimizing avoidable privacy and security threats.
Previous CDT guidance examines best practices for privacy and security training, and can serve as a resource to educators who are considering what new staff members need to know. We also offer a training module on COVID-19 and student privacy, which aims to help administrators make governance decisions and communicate them to school staff, and recommendations for practitioners on securing virtual classrooms.
Engaging Communities in Data and Technology Decisions
Schools across the country are facing an inflection point regarding parents’ role in school decisions, highlighting the demand for active community engagement. Community engagement is particularly important for building community trust in data and technology decisions, providing support around edtech use, and implementing learning plans that meet the community’s needs. Moreover, national and local health situations can change quickly, and data and technology play an important role in decisions about the collection of COVID-19 testing data, the use of online learning tools, and potential transitions to remote learning. As education leaders weigh potential paths forward, they should seek to proactively engage students and their families to inform these decisions. A formal engagement process can also benefit decision-making by ensuring that the voices of all families, not just the most vocal, are heard and considered.
As schools respond to the omicron surge, many are turning to data to coordinate their response. These efforts will benefit from community input. According to CDT research on school reopening last fall, a majority of parents considered it appropriate for schools to collect information on teacher vaccinations, student vaccinations, students’ home internet access, or similar issues to help make effective reopening plans. Only 16 percent of parents disapproved of gathering any new data.
That said, parents have varying levels of comfort with how health data is shared and used — for instance, 62 percent of those surveyed expressed comfort with sharing it with district leadership, while only 43 percent expressed comfort with sharing it publicly in aggregate. Going forward, when schools do decide to collect additional information to inform COVID-19 response plans, they should do so through a community engagement effort that clearly articulates how this data will, and will not, be used.
Closing the Homework Gap
Many schools have responded to the current omicron wave by relying more heavily on remote learning. These transitions are a reminder that the homework gap remains a serious barrier to equitable education for many students. As we have previously discussed, schools should incorporate digital literacy training and device security measures into their strategies for closing the homework gap, to help keep their students safe once they are brought online. By prioritizing these privacy and security measures proactively rather than reactively, teachers and students will be better equipped to leverage existing school resources when school closures or other incidents arise.
Appropriate attention to privacy and security configuration of online learning tools is likewise an important ingredient to closing the homework gap in a way that does not jeopardize student privacy. Specific measures include ensuring school-issued devices are updated with the latest software and adhering to established data governance practices. Although schools have dealt with most of these practices before, one new dimension is that devices that schools procured earlier in the pandemic may be in need of software and hardware maintenance such as updating with the latest security patches and deleting old student data. Schools should ensure a methodical governance process is in place for identifying devices in need of maintenance and providing relevant updates.
Education leaders are obviously frustrated to once again be fighting to provide basic school needs in the face of COVID-19. As they incorporate technology into their strategies for navigating the current wave, they should lean on a lesson from the past two years: that privacy and security considerations are an easily overlooked, but crucially important, component of an effective response.