Back to School … well, sort of

After what some parents have called ‘the longest Spring Break ever,’ September is here, and schools across the province are re-opening their doors, in part. It’s been heartening to see kids smiling from ear to ear, even with their masks on, eager to see their friends and teachers again. The courage in their voices affirms that they’re prepared to learn and determined to adapt to whatever novel and experimental approaches come their way.

But this year’s classrooms will look and feel a lot different, with many kids staying home for their own safety and that of their families, preferring to participate in online learning.

Given the current context, many schools across Ontario have had to accelerate their use of online learning platforms. Under Ontario’s municipal privacy law, school boards are accountable for ensuring that online tools do not improperly collect, use, or disclose students’ personal information.

But some of these tools don’t always have adequate privacy and security protections. Parents may be justifiably concerned about the security features of some surveillance tools that can take over home computer cameras or microphones, and record their children outside the classroom.  Parents may legitimately worry about some education software programs that collect excessive behavioral data and generate student profiles to predict intelligence or likely success rates, which then get shared with third parties without proper authorization.

While these online learning tools existed before COVID-19, their deployment on a grand scale has a sharp way of focussing the mind on their attendant risks.

Our Guide to Privacy and Access in Ontario Schools provides a number of best practices for schools and school boards to consider when selecting and using online learning platforms. These include:

  • developing and implementing policies that evaluate, approve, and support online tools
  • providing privacy and security training and ongoing support for teachers and staff
  • notifying students and parents in a timely, clear and concise manner about the personal information that may be required by the online platform
  • allowing students or parents to opt out of using the online platform or certain features, where feasible

In addition, we have developed a series of IPC fact sheets to help school boards, teachers, administrators, and parents navigate the new frontiers associated with virtual classrooms and e-learning.

Online learning platforms are powerful tools, and never have they proven to be so important as now. Having strong privacy policies and effective security safeguards in place can help students, parents, teachers, and school boards get this school year off to a good start.



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