From the cybersecurity of students’ and teachers personal devices used for lecturing, the monitoring of various communication channels, to preserving all the business records, which are in themselves an ever-evolving topic, the past year has been quite a challenge for legal and compliance professionals working in schools, as well as teachers, school tech teams, and administration.
This challenge was further worsened by the fact that it also befalls schools to provide a sense of clarity and hope in the time of great distress for their students.
Educators had to consider individual needs, which they partially managed to do successfully thanks to edtech advances. Still, the intersection of technology and education holds many compliance pitfalls, easy to fall into for lack of a comprehensive compliance strategy.
Whatever becomes of the pandemic, the remote classroom has shown a lot of potential for the future of education, but schools need to ensure stable foundations for them to endure the tech challenges of the future and protect students’ privacy.
Preserve all business records
Given the sensitive nature of data they work with, schools are a prime example of regulated industries, where a number of complex and stringent laws regulate data handling.
When it comes to communication, it’s important to remember the scope of the term “business records” in the context of education. Essentially, any communication–via email as the most standard means, but also through all other tools and apps–between teachers and students and their parents that contains data on a student’s academic performance is considered official.
As such, it needs to be preserved and archived for adequate time and disclosed in case of legal proceedings or data retrieval requests.
What this means is that if a teacher distributes test scores or other information (including courses attended and information of attendance, contact number, awards, etc.), they could be in breach of FERPA for disclosing sensitive information without the prior consent of parents and students.
Similarly, if it comes to a lawsuit or audit, you’ll want to have all the evidence of how information was exchanged, and you’ll want to be able to prove its authenticity.
For instance, if you do communicate officially via WhatsApp or Skype, you should also have a clearly defined strategy that regulates responsibilities and do’s and don’ts of how to use your school’s WhatsApp archive or your official Facebook group or email accounts.
Be careful when choosing communication tools
Instant messaging tools proved particularly convenient during the lockdown, as teachers could easily inform the students of assignment due dates, changes in lecture schedule, or exchange any important updates.
And while these tools allow for real-time, one-to-many communication, it’s important that teachers and school staff don’t overstep the boundaries here. Not only because of their professional ethics, but also because this might lead to severe non-compliance for the entire school or even school district.
Given the convenience of Facebook, WhatsApp, Slack, Skype, or Google Talks, and similar emerging tools, teachers might be tempted to communicate with students and parents about school-related matters.
However, this is a major breach of regulatory compliance as, under FERPA, teachers are allowed to use only those communication tools for which they have signed a contract with the vendor. Also, if a teacher wants to use a new app, they need to get parental permission for minors.
Another aspect to mention here is that many schools use monitoring strategies to follow official communication channels for cases of cyberbullying or harassment. If any of the staff go past the official channels to unmonitored tools and apps, it can become quite difficult to spot the signs of problematic behavior early on and act quickly.
Educate both teachers and students
Remote learning is new for many. It will take time before we can fully and comfortably enjoy the benefits of remote classrooms without exposing ourselves too much or overstepping the boundaries.
The key point of navigating compliance in education is increasing awareness of potential blurry lines and double-checking before acting. Students’ privacy and compliance of your own actions as a teacher or a school employee are at the heart of compliance efforts.
These days, compliance is a joint effort. Everyone on the team needs to be compliance-savvy, for their own sake and for the sake of the school and class they teach.
If there’s a doubt about whether introducing a new app is non-compliant, check with the school legal team. The point of compliance is not for educators to balk at technology, but rather use it to the fullest and safely over the long run.