For students, families, and educators, 2020 was a turbulent year. Classrooms across the country moved online in response to the coronavirus pandemic and policymaking priorities shifted accordingly. The Center for Democracy & Technology (CDT) turned its attention to the privacy implications of remote learning, schools reopening, and getting students connected. In 2021, we will expand our policy work across four workstreams:
- Responding to COVID-19;
- Closing the homework gap while protecting student privacy;
- Providing technical assistance to schools and policymakers, especially on cybersecurity; and
- Grounding our work in data ethics.
Responding to COVID-19
Of course, COVID-19 did not disappear when 2020 came to an end. CDT will continue to support schools as they respond to the pandemic and will urge policymakers in Congress, the U.S. Department of Education, and state governments to help schools protect student privacy.
The measures schools take to monitor the pandemic have included temperature checks, thermal imaging software, symptom questionnaires, and even the use of Bluetooth and GPS technology. CDT will work with schools and policymakers to ensure that the data collected from these technologies are limited to proper uses and shared only as necessary. Likewise, as schools prepare to return to in-person learning, they will need to address the data maintained by services for remote learning.
Closing the Homework Gap
Although technology enabled students to continue learning as their physical classrooms closed, the shift to online learning highlighted existing inequities in broadband access for students of color, students with disabilities, or students from lower incomes, who have less access to reliable broadband at home. That disparity—called the homework gap—prevented some students from logging onto their lessons.
Closing the homework gap will continue to be important after the pandemic as reliable home broadband is an essential component of student learning. Closing the gap, however, poses privacy risks for students, as schools collect data to identify students who lack adequate broadband or provide devices that monitor student activity. CDT will advocate to ensure that schools have the resources not only to close the homework gap, but to protect their privacy as well.
The tools available to policymakers are broad and include legislation and appropriations, guidance on sharing data with broadband providers, and rules clarifying schools’ responsibility to monitor students’ activity online, especially when they are connecting from home.
Providing Technical Assistance and Advising on Cybersecurity
The COVID-19 pandemic brought with it a spike in cybersecurity incidents targeting K-12 institutions. They have taken a range of forms, including ransomware, DDoS (distributed denial of service) attacks, and exfiltration of teacher and student data.
Responding to cybersecurity threats requires a multifaceted approach and CDT will help by providing technical guidance to schools and districts and urging policymakers to support cybersecurity at the K-12 level. Policymakers can provide that support by expanding existing cybersecurity efforts at the federal and state levels, increasing coordination among stakeholders, funding cybersecurity measures, and providing guidance to educational institutions.
Policymakers should also ensure that policies and guidance for schools are rooted in data ethics that center equity and community engagement. Equity means ensuring equitable access to technology and educational opportunity and using data to help — rather than punish — students. Community engagement means involving students, families, and other stakeholders in decision-making processes about technology and data.
Research clearly demonstrates that parent engagement improves the effectiveness of students’ education and can increase families’ buy-in to school and district practices; however, a recent survey of parents from CDT shows that only four in ten parents have been engaged on issues of data and technology. Policymakers should ensure that students and families are meaningfully involved in technology decisions by their schools at the policy level.