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.