ACLU: As Remote Learning Continues, the Privacy of Some Students is Placed More at Risk than Others

by the ACLU of Rhode Island:

Recently, The Providence Journal published an article which commented on the economic divide between students doing remote learning and students who are back in the classroom. The article references a study from the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council which “concluded that distance learning has exacerbated the opportunity gaps between students from low- and higher-income families.”

Beyond noting the achievement gaps for lower-income families, the article also highlighted the inequity in access to remote learning resources during this time period.  In Cranston, for example, “9% of students were sharing a device with another family member.” These equity disparities are troubling in many ways, but one that does not get the attention it deserves is the disparate impact that this divide has on the privacy of lower-income families. 

For years, our organization has commented on the distinct lack of privacy protections afforded to students who use school-loaned computers, as evidenced by our 2017 and 2020 reports on this topic. Across the state, students are left with no expectation of privacy on these devices. In fact, most school district policies could even facilitate arbitrary, unbridled and discretionary access by school officials to the camera, microphone, data, or content of a student’s computer.

And while these reports consistently comment on this overall lack of protection given to students, the COVID-19 pandemic has added a new, more salient layer of concern to the ubiquity of remote learning –without comprehensive privacy protections on these devices, the students who remain at most risk of having their privacy encroached upon are those who must do remote learning for longer. As the article from The Providence Journal notes, these students are often lower-income and in lower-performing districts.

As has been emphasized from the start of the pandemic, remote learning is not a universal experience. Compounding factors such as income status, number of members in a household, availability of devices, and general societal stress have made remote learning extraordinarily and disproportionately challenging for some students.

When school districts and our state legislature do not act to provide all students with basic privacy protections on their school-loaned devices, it follows that this places certain students at higher risk of having their personal life inappropriately exposed to the school. In this instance, those students most at risk are those who are lower-income.

Immediate steps must be taken. Except in instances of legitimate educational interest, districts must implement privacy policies which restrict school access to a school-loaned computer’s camera or microphone; place limits on the manner in which the data of a school-loaned computer can be accessed; and create expectations of privacy for students who are using these devices.

Although this issue is one which impacts students in nearly every district in Rhode Island, its urgency is sharper for those students in districts that seem likely to continue with remote education for much, much longer. And for those students, who are already economically marginalized, this shouldn’t be yet another issue that they have to contend with to take advantage of their education. It’s clearer more than ever – students need these comprehensive privacy policies, and they need them now.