Modern Life

How to protect your family’s privacy during remote learning

Building a safe digital environment is essential to making remote learning work, experts say.

By Christina Caron — August 27, 2020

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
© 2020 The New York Times Company

Millions of students will attend school online this fall because of the coronavirus, either by choice or not.

Understandably, parents have a lot of questions: How will they access their child’s learning materials? Do they have enough devices? How is the school distributing tablets and laptops? Will there be a new grading policy?

But two questions somewhat absent from the conversation are how remote learning affects privacy, and what are the steps that parents, students and teachers can take to build an online environment that feels like a safe space.

“I think one of the biggest problems we have is trying to replicate or mirror traditional classroom practices in the virtual realm,” said Torrey Trust, Ph.D., an associate professor of learning technology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. That’s especially true during the pandemic, she added, when there are a lot of students who have experienced trauma and are now being forced into a remote learning environment.

In search of guidance, I spoke with seven experts who specialize in online education, privacy and safety. Here is what they recommend to ensure that children are protected.


Talk to your children about what privacy means to them

“It’s important for parents to have conversations with their children about what feels private to them and what doesn’t,” said Jen Cort, an educational consultant and clinical social worker in Montgomery County, Maryland. That’s not a one-time conversation, she added.

Everyone has a general understanding of what privacy is: a lack of intrusion into one’s private life. But not everybody considers the same things to be an intrusion, and people’s definition of privacy can change depending upon where they are and whom they are interacting with, in person or online.

Parents play an important role in validating their children’s worries about privacy, and can help their kids practice speaking up about their concerns. 

Amelia Vance, the director of youth and education privacy at the Future of Privacy Forum, a nonprofit in Washington, D.C., that provides resources to help people better understand how new technologies affect privacy, said students should be instructed to tell their teachers or parents if they feel uncomfortable or unsafe in the online learning environment. 

Take time to discuss any anxieties your children might have about online privacy: Are they worried that the teacher may record their class and, if so, are they concerned about how securely that recording will be stored and for how long? Are they anxious about being seen on camera or whether a video platform is safe? Are they scared that other students might take snapshots of the class or that their classmates will judge their home?

Students who appear on video may also fear that their teachers will judge their appearance. That’s why teachers should check in privately with their students to make sure that they are interpreting their students’ facial expressions and body language correctly, Cort advised. A student who giggles, for example, might be doing so out of discomfort and not because he finds something funny.


Discuss when and how often to use the camera

Talk with children about being on camera during class, and let them know that they have options. 

Dr. Trust created an infographic challenging educators to consider different strategies for student engagement, like allowing students to respond via audio only or in the chat box. “By requiring them to turn on their video, that’s almost like you walking into their home and teaching without their permission,” Dr. Trust said. “The teacher and their peers may see things that could negatively impact the student.” 

Teachers need to take a proactive role in building a safe space for students, she added, and there should be a discussion between themselves and students about when the video is turned on, why video can be important and whether it is OK to opt out.

This is particularly true of students who may have experienced trauma — any deeply distressing experience that sticks with us. These students may not be comfortable seeing their image on the screen. If that’s the case, it’s often possible to turn off the mirror view, said Karen Costa, a faculty development and online teaching and learning specialist who has been teaching online since 2007. Although some people blossom in the face of the camera, others shrink back and close up, she added.

Scott Gelber/The New York Times

Experts say parents play an important role in validating their children’s worries about privacy, and can help their kids practice speaking up about their concerns.

“We want to give all learners a choice about whether or not they are going to be on camera,” said Costa, who primarily teaches college students and faculty.

If students opt out of video, and chat forums are enabled at their school, the chats can provide a way for students to process what they are learning in real time, reiterate what they just learned and stay engaged, especially students with learning challenges like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, Costa added.

“I use the chat very, very heavily,” she said. “If we shut that off, we shut off so many valuable learning opportunities.”


Consider the benefits of the camera

When choosing how or when to use the camera, families don't need to take an all-or-nothing approach. For example, your child might want to keep the camera on for certain class activities, like small group breakout sessions, and turn it off for others.

Students may also benefit from doing a few one-on-one sessions with their teachers to get used to the video format. Or, they might choose to turn off the camera at the beginning of the school year and decide at a later time to turn it back on.

Kerry Gallagher, the director of K-12 Education at, a nonprofit that educates parents and teachers about privacy and safety, suggested designating a specific spot in your home where your child can safely and comfortably set up for school each day.

“For parents, understanding what information is being collected and how it is being used can help them make more informed decisions as far as how their child participates.” 

— Jennifer Mathes, Ph.D., CEO, Online Learning Consortium

Students who don’t wish to display their living space might consider using a digital background, if possible, or creating their own background using materials like fabric or poster boards.

Gallagher, who is also an eighth-grade teacher and an assistant principal at St. John’s Prep in Danvers, Mass., encourages children to stay on video if they can, because she said that reading the body language and facial expressions of a child can help teachers know whether their students are processing information.

“If I can’t see their face, then I’m not really sure how they’re doing,” Gallagher said.

But Gallagher advises parents to talk to the school if there are privacy concerns or their child is not comfortable on camera, and together they can work out a way to ensure they get quality interactions with their teacher.


Check out the tools your child will be using

“My biggest concern is schools or teachers utilizing any platform that either has not been vetted fully or that has poor privacy safeguards in place for the kids,” said Olga Garcia-Kaplan, a mother of three in Montclair, N.J., and a student privacy advocate. What kind of information is being collected, she asked, how is it being used and who has access to it?

Since 2016, schools in the United States have had more than 900 cybersecurity-related incidents, like personal data breaches, according to the K-12 Cybersecurity Resource Center, a website run by the consulting firm EdTech Strategies. The group uses data from a variety of public databases and news reports to offer a snapshot of the security problems that schools have faced.

“For parents, understanding what information is being collected and how it is being used can help them make more informed decisions as far as how their child participates,” said Jennifer Mathes, Ph.D., the chief executive officer of the Online Learning Consortium, a nonprofit that helps educators set up and improve online, blended, and digital learning.

If your children are old enough to have their own phones, make sure that they aren’t downloading apps for their schoolwork that haven’t been vetted by the school. Online classes should be password protected, and the way the teacher shares the password should not be public. It’s also helpful to know how the teacher will track student attendance, engagement, or progress and whether that tracking will factor into a student’s grade.

Vance, of the Future of Privacy Forum, recommended that parents encourage their children to use strong passwords and adopt tools to limit data tracking like the browser plug-in AdBlock Plus.

For information about a specific learning game or other type of digital tool, parents can check out the privacy ratings provided by Common Sense Media, a nonprofit that promotes safe technology and media for children, or Dr. Trust’s website, which rates different types of educational technology like knowledge and assessment tools.

Parents may also consult the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit privacy advocacy group in California, which offers an online surveillance self-defense kit. Everything you do on a school-issued device could be tracked, the organization says on its website, which is why it’s best to access your personal or sensitive accounts only on your personal devices using networks that you trust. The Future of Privacy Forum also has numerous online resources for both parents and teachers.

Finally, before using any new tools in the classroom, teachers should first check out their school or district’s educational technology tool vetting process.

“If their school does not have a process, 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,” Vance said.


Time for a home tech upgrade? Here’s how to do it safely and responsibly.