Photo: twenty20photos / Envato

Sometime in mid-October, a viral video caught my attention: in it, some second-graders are left to their own devices (literally) in the middle of a virtual lesson. Their teacher lost her internet connection, and a recording of the aftermath was uploaded to the internet. It was tweeted and re-tweeted—and viewers quickly started to weigh in on the kids’ reactions.

Sure, the video is cute, but all I could see while I watched it was alarm bells. Not only was the video posted publicly—it was posted with the name, city and state of the school the kids attend. As a parent, I wouldn’t want footage of my kid’s face and voice (and our family’s home, for that matter) out there for the world to see, and certainly not with identifiable information like the school she attends. I wouldn’t want thousands upon thousands of strangers sharing their thoughts about my daughter in the comments section, especially after seeing one Twitter user express that they felt like punching one of the kids in the face. Let’s try and remember that these are kids.

For me, this video really demonstrated the ways that virtual class can jeopardize our kids’ safety. And, it showed me that we need to start having more serious conversations about how to protect their privacy during remote learning.

Online Learning & Kids’ Privacy

The story above shows us one way student privacy can be compromised when classes are recorded and videos are shared widely. Remote learning usually requires kids to be on camera, giving teachers and other students a view of their homes—a privacy concern in itself. But, aside from the intrusion into private spaces, there is also the question of data privacy any time we use a new app or platform.

Karen Richardson is the executive director for the Virginia Society for Technology, recently told Axios that “[w]e’re trying to take brick-and-mortar school and shove it onto the internet, and the two things just aren’t compatible.” The article also points out that teachers are busy and not always adequately trained in technology and student privacy. According to a 2018 survey from Common Sense Media, only 25% of teachers who participated in professional development on ed-tech received training in student data privacy requirements. That means that there are plenty of teachers who are valiantly trying to keep teaching—without training on how to keep kids safe on new online platforms. So, what can be done to help protect our kids’ privacy? A lot of experts have made a lot of suggestions—that seem to put the onus squarely on parents and teachers.

Yet Another Job for Parents & Teachers

Before the start of this school year, The New York Times spoke to seven experts in online education, privacy, and safety. They shared advice on how to protect your family’s privacy during remote learning, and I was struck by the fact that all the advice seemed like a lot of work for parents and teachers. They suggest that parents have ongoing privacy conversations with their kids and with their kids’ teachers. They suggest that parents research all the technology that their kids will be using to determine what data is collected, how it’s stored, and how it’s used. Don’t get me wrong: this is sound advice. It’s just a lot of leg work for already-frazzled parents.

The experts also suggest that teachers accommodate students who are uncomfortable on camera with other options like a chat tool. And, the experts suggest that teachers should “take the time and effort to review each tool’s data collection, and use practices and privacy policy to determine if they comply with federal and state legal requirements and adequately protect student privacy” if their schools don’t already have a procedure in place.

All the advice is good in theory—but I can’t help but think that parents and teachers shouldn’t be the only ones spearheading the effort to make online learning more secure. Surely tech companies, school boards, governments, and regulators have a role to play as well?

It’s an understatement to say that this year has been hard on parents. When the pandemic first shut down large swaths of society back in March, schools, and offices were suddenly shuttered, forcing many parents into untenable work-from-home-while-also-homeschooling arrangements. And many parents had to make the impossible decision to leave the workforce entirely if their jobs didn’t allow them to stay home and supervise children while they learned remotely. While some schools reopened for in-person or hybrid learning in September, the decision to send kids back to school was also not an easy one for parents.

It’s also an understatement to say that it’s been a challenging year for teachers. Many are trying to manage new safety protocols in the classroom, while also reimagining their lesson plans to accommodate remote learners. What was already a demanding job before the pandemic now has brand new stresses and strains as teachers try to navigate an entirely new form of instruction. Teachers for younger students are especially challenged to keep their classes engaged—as these viral videos demonstrate.

Ultimately, there are no easy answers when it comes to education during a pandemic. Parents, teachers, and kids are all trying their best to carry on in an unprecedented situation—and largely without broader support from institutions, tech companies, and governments. While I appreciate the expert advice on how to protect kids’ privacy while learning remotely, I can’t help but think that the problem would be better solved if we shifted some of the onus away from the already-stressed parents and teachers.