Borrowed a School Laptop? Mind Your Open Tabs

Students—many from lower-income households—were likely to use school-issued devices for remote learning. But the devices often contained monitoring software.

When tens of millions of students suddenly had to learn remotely, schools lent laptops and tablets to those without them. But those devices typically came with monitoring software, marketed as a way to protect students and keep them on-task. Now, some privacy advocates, parents, and teachers say that software created a new digital divide, limiting what some students could do and putting them at increased risk of disciplinary action.

One day last fall, Ramsey Hootman’s son, then a fifth grader in the West Contra Costa School District in California, came to her with a problem: He was trying to write a social studies report when the tabs on his browser kept closing. Every time he tried to open a new tab to study, it disappeared.

It wasn’t an accident. When Hootman emailed the teacher, she says she was told, “‘Oh, surprise, we have this new software where we can monitor everything your child is doing throughout the day and can see exactly what they’re seeing, and we can close all their tabs if we want.’”

Hootman soon learned that all of the district’s school-issued devices use Securly, student-monitoring software that lets teachers see a student’s screen in real time and even close tabs if they discover a student is off-task. During class time, students were expected to have only two tabs open. After Hootman’s complaint, the district raised the limit to five tabs.

But Hootman says she and other parents wouldn’t have chosen school-issued devices if they knew the extent of the monitoring. (“I’m lucky that’s an option for us,” she says.) She also worried that when monitoring software automatically closes tabs or otherwise penalizes multitasking, it makes it harder for students to cultivate their own ability to focus and build discipline.

“As parents, we spend a lot of time helping our kids figure out how to balance schoolwork and other stuff,” she says. “Obviously, the internet is a big distraction, and we’re working with them on being able to manage distractions. You can’t do that if everything is already decided for you.”

Ryan Phillips, communications director for the school district, says Securly’s features are designed to protect students’ privacy, are only required for district-issued devices, and that teachers can only view a student’s computer during school hours. Securly did not respond to a request for comment.

In a report earlier this month, the Center for Democracy and Technology, a Washington, DC-based tech policy nonprofit, said the software installed on school-issued computers essentially created two classes of students. Those from lower-income households were more likely to use school-issued computers, and therefore more likely to be monitored.

“Our hypothesis was there are certain groups of students, more likely those attending lower-income schools, who are going to be more reliant on school-issued devices and therefore be subject to more surveillance and tracking than their peers who can essentially afford to opt out,” explains Elizabeth Laird, one of the report’s authors.

The report found that Black and Hispanic families were more reliant on school devices than their white counterparts and were more likely to voice concern about the potential disciplinary consequences of the monitoring software.

The group said monitoring software, from companies like Securly and GoGuardian, offers a range of capabilities, from blocking access to adult content and flagging certain keywords (slurs, profanity, terms associated with self-harm, violence, etc.) to allowing teachers to see students screens in real time and make changes.

Clarice Brazas, a teacher in Philadelphia’s public schools, is alarmed by the ability to remotely monitor screens. The district issued Chromebooks to qualifying students, but she worried about the disciplinary consequences of monitoring software in a district where a majority of students are nonwhite and low-income.

“I don’t know that it’s my job as an educator to police what content students are looking at when they’re at home,” she says. “I consider that the family’s job.”

In speaking with other teachers about GoGuardian, the monitoring software used in Philadelphia, she found there was not a consistent approach to policing students’ online activity. The lack of oversight, she says, has led to a case-by-case approach to disciplining students, which could unfairly harm students of color.

“We haven’t really been given any standards as educators, like what is our duty of reporting? Is that the same as if it was happening in our classroom?” she says. A September investigation from the Center for Public Integrity and USA Today found that while half of the students in Philadelphia are Black, they make up nearly nearly three-quarters of students referred to police for school-related incidents. A representative for the school district didn’t return a request for comment.

“We know that when kids face any sort of disciplinary action and they’re Black or brown, they’re more likely to have escalated discipline because of that,” Brazas says.

Brazas and Laird both referenced the “school-to-prison pipeline,” where students of color are disciplined more harshly in school than white students for the same offenses, exposing them to law enforcement, the juvenile justice system, and ultimately, the adult prison system.

Even some parents of students who own their own devices found the deluge of school-issued software overwhelming.

Cassie Creswell, a parent with children in the Chicago public schools, kept a list of each piece of software that her daughter, a high school sophomore, was asked to download. Within two months, there were 15.

“Every couple of days, it was like, ‘Oh, install this. Make an account on this,’” Creswell says. “We never got any notification or consent whatsoever for any of these things.”

The Chicago schools issued over 50,000 devices to students as part of its shift to remote learning. GoGuardian was only preinstalled on the Chromebooks that it lent to students. For a time, a security flaw allowed teachers to initiate virtual classrooms at will, automatically triggering the webcams of district-owned Chromebooks without students having to accept an invitation. CPS and GoGuardian removed this feature after parents protested.

“We care deeply about keeping students safe and protecting their privacy,” a GoGuardian spokesman wrote in a statement. “We also recognize the important role that school leaders play in balancing student privacy and safety in the digital age and are committed to thoughtfully partnering with our customers to support that balance.”

Laird, of the Center for Democracy and Technology, says the harms from the monitoring software aren’t limited to students getting in trouble for what they see, type, or search for. It also includes what they won’t see or search for because of the knowledge that they’re being watched.

“We found that six in 10 students agreed with the statement ‘I do not share my true thoughts or ideas because I know what I do online is being monitored,’” she says.

“When you think about this happening in an educational environment where you want students to express themselves, you want students to be learning, you want students to feel free to make mistakes, that response raises questions about whether this will actually undermine the whole purpose of education.”

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