Education Department Addresses Privacy Concerns with Online Learning

With almost all schools in the country closed and many trying to provide virtual learning experiences, some questions have arisen about privacy of students and families.  Student privacy is covered by the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), and the Student Privacy Policy Office (SPPO) at the U.S. Department of Education has developed a fact sheet with resources to assist educators and families in navigating how to ensure privacy while providing virtual education.  SPPO has a number of resources on its website, including documents that address FERPA exceptions and a checklist to evaluate online educational apps.

One question that arisen a number of times is whether observing groups of students with disabilities in a virtual learning “classroom” or group therapy session is a violation of FERPA.  SPPO has previously addressed the question of whether FERPA prohibits parents of children with disabilities or educators working with parents of children with disabilities from observing the child in a general or special education classroom.  The Department concluded that FERPA provides privacy protection for “education records”; however, the law does not specifically prohibit parents or professionals working with those parents from observing in the child’s classroom.  SPPO has now added that this same conclusion also holds true for virtual classrooms.

In addition to the fact sheet specific to online learning, the Department also produced an FAQ on FERPA and the coronavirus.  This document provides good information about the release of “personally identifiable information” to the public health department, providing information to staff and families about particular students or staff who may have COVID-19, and when consent is necessary for release of education records.

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