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Guide on navigating privacy concerns for students with disabilities during COVID-19

Little school boy during study session with teacher

The Future of Privacy Forum (FPF) and National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD) recently launched ‘Student Privacy and Special Education: An Educator’s Guide During and After COVID-19,” to help educators navigate privacy challenges for students with disabilities during virtual learning.

Schools nationwide are collecting a broader array of sensitive health information on students, families and staff to monitor and limit health risks as they plot reopening strategies in the wake of coronavirus-related building closures earlier in the year. The guide is designed to help schools navigate the variety of privacy laws impacting distance learning and special education services.

Topics covered in the guide include: the use of videoconferencing tools with students; how to know if a particular platform is compliant with privacy laws; whether a student’s family members and parents can be present during a live virtual class; whether a live virtual class can be recorded for students to view later; and if teletherapy or one-on-one services can be provided to students via video conferencing.

When the coronavirus pandemic forced school buildings to close in spring, educators and students had to embrace distance learning, transitioning to an entirely different and largely unfamiliar learning model practically overnight. Aside from presenting logistical and curricular headaches, this created a minefield to navigate on the student privacy front.

Among major privacy laws that must be weighed in any decision are the:

  • Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA)
  • Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)
  • Children’s Online Privacy and Protection Act (COPPA)
  • Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA)

It’s a tangled web, but it is one the FPF and NCLD have set out to help educators navigate as many of the nation’s districts will continue teaching online to varying degrees in the new school year.

“As educators teach virtually even more, there will be many barriers to instructing every student, but concerns about data privacy shouldn’t be one,” said Lindsay Jones, president and CEO of the National Center for Learning Disabilities, in a press release. “It’s important for educators to have clear information about how privacy laws impact the delivery of virtual instruction, because now more than ever we must use ed tech in a way that helps us effectively teaching all students in a virtual world.”

As schools move toward reopening, refreshing faculty on student privacy laws will also be necessary to prevent casual gossip and clarify who information can be shared with when it comes to student infections and other sensitive data. Earlier this year, the FPF also teamed up with AASA, The School Superintendents Association, to release a white paper advising administrators on student privacy rights during coronavirus-related shutdowns.

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