Friday, June 02, 2023

Parents are always concerned about their children’s safety. This is especially true when children are at school away from parents’ watchful eye. There is a presumption, a warranty, of safety when parents entrust their children to those who would act in loco parentis. State laws mandate certain safeguards, e.g., fire alarms, eye wash stations, and hoods in labs. Common sense dictates that there be adequate security in place, padded walls in the gym, and ID badges for all staff and visitors.

Policies are also in place regarding how to report accidents, coverage on trips, fire drills, lock downs, and other emergency procedures. There are, however, two areas where schools need to enforce and strengthen safety policies: recess and digital security.

Soon the snow will melt and children will once again frolic outdoors during recess periods. It is not uncommon for several classes to be at recess at the same time. Children will be running, throwing balls, climbing outdoor equipment, etc.

There are, hopefully, rules in the faculty handbooks stipulating supervisory procedures. However, I suggest that parents stop by and observe outdoor recess in their children’s schools. Too often teachers congregate together in a group to chat on one side of the recess area while children romp far away from them. At times, teachers may sit down instead of walking around.

Worse still are those who use this time to check their e-mail and talk on their cell phones. Teachers need break time too and it should be provided—but not while they are supposed to be supervising children in the playground. Teachers are still on duty during recess. It doesn’t take long for an accident to happen, especially on a hard concrete or asphalt surface. Proximity to children can prevent spills on playground equipment when children don’t allow enough time for climbing or sliding.

No less significant than a child’s safety is the school’s exposure in the event of an accident or injury. Was the teacher present? How far away? Was the teacher observing students at play? How long did it take to reach the child? If there are four classes at recess then all teachers should station themselves in such a way that all children are under active, not passive, supervision. Children can and do push and shove each other. Often they are just playing. Keen observation can prevent minor exuberance from becoming a more serious problem.

Another potential safety issue is the use by schools and faculty of many online programs for computer-aided instruction, maintaining school records, tracking schedules, PTA announcements, email accounts, grades, student data, financial information, personnel records, faculty information, etc. Software engineers have noted that many sites used by students are not fully encrypted, but also stored passwords in plain text—security weaknesses that could potentially have allowed unauthorized users to gain access to details like students’ names, voice recordings, or skill levels. Many education sites have glaring security problems.

A big part of the problem is that there’s no consensus of what “good security” means for an educational website or app. The problem affects educational programs more than administrative applications but still requires vigilance and review.

To help schools evaluate companies’ security practices, the Consortium for School Networking, a national association of school district chief technology officers, published a list of security questions last year for schools to ask before they sign purchase agreements with technology vendors. (http://www.cosn.org/sites/default/files/03_SecurityQuestions.pdf) The group has received financing from Dell, Google, Pearson, Microsoft, and other companies involved in the education sector.

Free open online courses may have a security weakness that could allow instructors to gain access to the names and email addresses of millions of students. Another flaw could potentially allow other websites, digital advertising networks, or online analytics firms to compile lists of the students’ courses.

Some privacy-law scholars, educators, and technologists contend that federal protections for student data have not kept pace with the scope and sophistication of classroom data-mining. Although a federal privacy law places some limits on how schools, and the vendors to which they outsource school functions, handle students’ official educational records, these experts say the protections do not extend to many of the free learning sites and apps that teachers download and use independently in their classrooms.

These kinds of security weaknesses are commonplace on consumer sites. But the law has long treated educational information as a category worthy of special protections, like credit or medical records. Considering the recent data breaches at even large, well-financed companies like Anthem and Sony, some privacy advocates want federal regulators to mandate that the education technology industry beef up student data protection.

Caveat emptor!

Rabbi Dr. Wallace Greene has had a distinguished career as a Jewish educator. He was a college professor, day school principal, and director of two central agencies for Jewish education, including our own community’s Jewish Educational Services for over a decade. He was part of the Frisch School’s original faculty, was the founder of the Sinai School, and has received many prestigious awards.

By Dr. Wallace Greene


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