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Protecting Student Data Across All Communication Channels

By Stefan Vucicevic*

For quite some time, schools have been relying on online communication to interact with their students, preserve and protect their data, and stay in line with numerous regulations that secure their operations. Given recent developments worldwide, there are now three aspects that make this already difficult challenge even more demanding and prone to errors.

An increasing number of communication channels

First of all, the number of communication channels has been increasing for a decade now. The advent of social media has brought about new platforms and forms of communication. New apps rise and die each year, and students readily change their main means of communication. To stay in touch with them, schools need to do the same. And to be fair, schools, albeit slow at adapting given the size and complexity of their operations, have made progress here.

Complex legislation regulating school data

The second challenge comes from the complex legislation, at least in the U.S., where schools need to make sure to preserve every single interaction between their staff and students and parents. Emails, texts, instant messages, gifs, images, and emojis are considered official records and so need to be in school’s focus. This issue is exacerbated by different retention periods, scope of authority, intersection of different laws (which one has precedence), compliance issues, and data management policies.

Unpredictability and the need to adapt

Finally, we have the still ongoing global pandemic, as the game changer, that shows the unpredictability and need to be agile.

Whatever schools were doing to modernize and streamline their digital processes, once the pandemic broke out, they had to switch fast to a fully remote mode. They had to quickly adapt to previously unused communication channels, or at least not used on such a large scale. Zoom meetings, online classes, WhatsApp, and Viber groups have become the norm. In the wake of this transition, there was plenty of room for privacy mishandling, data loss, and non-compliance.

What Schools Need to Do to Protect Their Data

So now that we know the challenges, let’s see how schools can try to work out these while ensuring they stay compliant and prevent data loss incidents and privacy infringements of student data.

Have a clear understanding of compliance responsibilities

There is a lot going on in an average school district in a regular school year. From applications and enrolments, to procurements, to organizing classes, and field trips, communicating with vendors, replying to administrative requests, it’s easy to oversee a requirement that a school needs to meet.

Add to this changing legislation and subsequent processes, as well as the sudden change of work, where everyone now works from home, it becomes even more difficult. Can all your staff access all the data required? Is it safe to use Zoom? Can a school district get fined? Which communication channels are ok? Which software do I need to get parents’ consent for?

How to Protect Student Data Across All Communication Channels

To stay on the safe side, it’s worth looking at your internal processes closely. While this often seems like a no-brainer, it’s often overlooked, resulting in hefty fines. So, what can schools do here in practice? Here are a few tips and things to consider:

  • Write down all the communication channels you and your staff use. Be thorough here. It’s important to get it right from the get-go, so that you can prepare a comprehensive strategy.

  • Is there a clear policy on which channels it’s ok to use and not? Eliminate the channels that you have neither parents’ consent for nor vendor agreement. Identify the channels you want and are allowed to use.

  • What formats do you need to preserve? Do you have the necessary tools to do that? Do you need to preserve only emails, or do you also need to preserve social media and instant messaging tools? Which social media and which formats?

  • Do you have a clear records retention process? Do you do it manually at regular intervals or do you have that process automated?

  • Who’s in charge of preserving data? Make sure to assign responsible people.

  • Do you have a reliable backup of all your data? Can their safety be jeopardized? How easy is to retrieve this data in case of an information retrieval request?

  • How do you monitor conversations going on these channels? Make sure you’re able to spot the signs of potential incidents early on.

  • Spread awareness among your teachers and staff. Make sure everyone understands the importance of persevering communication and implications of non-compliance.

  • Find tools to help you archive and preserve this information, but first, understand your specific needs. No tool can assist you unless you understand exactly what you want to accomplish.

(*) Stefan Vucicevic is a tech writer at Jatheon Technologies, an information archiving company from Canada. He covers information archiving in regulated industries, specializing in education, healthcare, and public sector.


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