August 4th, 2020

Student Privacy & Special Education: An Educator’s Guide

The COVID-19 pandemic caused schools to rapidly transition to distance learning, often relying on technology to provide classes virtually. This shift has raised questions about how to protect student data privacy, particularly for students in special education. A new guide from the National Center for Learning Disabilities and the Future of Privacy Forum, Student Privacy and Special Education: An Educator’s Guide During and After COVID-19,” addresses educators concerns and summarizes key privacy laws.

Federal privacy laws & COVID-19 

In partnership with the Future of Privacy Forum, NCLD developed the guide in response to common questions posed by educators. The guide explains how privacy laws apply to virtual learning and answers educators’ questions about video conferencing platforms, recording classes, and virtual one-on-one services. Looking ahead, the guide also previews questions about the use of student health and disability data in school reopening plans.

Federal privacy laws are critical to protecting student data, but they were not specifically written for virtual learning. As a result, there are some gray areas about how the laws apply to our current circumstances. Our new guide draws on federal guidance and best practices in addition to federal privacy laws to help educators protect the privacy of students with disabilities.

Future Implications

As schools and districts begin creating reopening plans, there will be additional concerns about the privacy of student health data. Health screening measures have been recommended as a way to control the spread of COVID-19 and may be adopted in schools, raising questions about how health data will be collected, used, and stored. Using health or disability status to inform education decisions also risks discrimination against students with disabilities or special health care needs.

Ultimately, educators must balance the need to protect student privacy with the need to provide educational access to all students. Concerns about privacy should not become a barrier to providing special education and related services to students with disabilities. Throughout the pandemic, educators and school leaders must prioritize students with disabilities and their privacy in both virtual and in-person learning.

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