July 12, 2024


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A hacker ‘Zoom-bombed’ my daughter’s school board meeting

In April 2020, my then-6-year-old daughter and I were Zoom-bombed when somebody shared a graphic video of sexual child abuse during testimony we were giving to a school board in Washington, D.C. Even though the school board paused the meeting and kicked the person responsible for it out of the virtual hearing, the hacker played the horrifying video for several minutes. The meeting was open to the public and not password protected.

Afterwards, my daughter was traumatized and didn’t want to rejoin her first-grade online classes anymore. She didn’t want the bad people to get her, she told me, which was heartbreaking for a mother to hear. Fortunately, she responded well to therapy – ironically, over video software like Zoom – and eventually overcame her fear of technology, in part because of the privacy protections her school put into place.

As many children return to the classroom from more than a year of remote learning, it’s clear that the pandemic has changed the way we use technology to educate our kids, and there will be no going back to the way things were before.

Cyberattacks and ransomeware

Online learning is here to stay for countless kids. A March survey by the Center for Democracy & Technology found that 85% of teachers and 74% of parents say they are likely to support some form of online learning once campuses reopen.

Along with the risk of being Zoom-bombed, there are other technological hurdles to overcome with remote learning such as threats to student privacy, digital equity challenges, and cybersecurity hazards. Despite the high profile recent cyberattacks against Colonial Pipeline and JBS meat processing company, the FBI says schools are now the most popular targets of ransomware attacks.

A Dec. 2020 advisory coauthored by multiple government agencies found that 2020 saw a troubling number of cybersecurity incidents in K-12 schools. Last August and September, for example, 57% of all ransomware incidents reported involved schools.

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The way to protect our children is by educators and parents working together to translate the benefits of online learning into their post-pandemic practices while avoiding its negative effects. While parents cannot bear the entire burden of protecting their child’s privacy while they are at school, we can play an important role if schools engage us effectively.

Parents, schools are in this together

I was lucky last year to have my first and second graders enrolled in a school that engaged me on issues of data, technology and privacy. Along with other parents, I received training on using technology responsibly, information on how the school is protecting my children when they are online, and I was asked for (and gave) my opinion on which types of technology should be used by my children’s school.

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Unfortunately, I am often the exception when it comes to families communicating with schools on these issues. According to the Center for Democracy & Technology, although 60% of parents are concerned about student privacy protection, 77% of parents have never asked their kids’ teachers about student privacy.

Nicole Johnson-Douglas in Washington, D.C., in January 2017.

Nicole Johnson-Douglas in Washington, D.C., in January 2017.

Moving forward, parents and teachers should be trained on how to navigate digital challenges. Schools should provide parents with support for helping their kids use technology successfully. Privacy, security and digital equity are a big piece of this and include things like helping children log in online while keeping their passwords safe, avoiding unsecure websites or clicking on suspicious links, and ensuring that digital tools work for all students, including students with disabilities.

Schools should also involve parents in decisions around how technology will be used. Parents and family members are key collaborators and sources of insight for schools as they seek to craft technology solutions that meet the needs of their children.

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To be sure, online learning has tremendous advantages. If COVID-19 hit the U.S. when I was
a D.C. public school student, I’m sure I would’ve missed out on an entire year of learning. But my children have been fortunate to stay engaged in school and continue learning during the pandemic.

They’re also lucky to be on the right side of the deep digital divide in America. While we make progress to get more students online, it also comes with responsibility to keep them safe. And who better to consult than families themselves?

Nicole Johnson-Douglas is a Washington, D.C.-based community advocate and parent of two elementary school-aged children. She is the founder of D’vine Touch Education and Management Consulting.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Online learning is rewarding, but dangerous without privacy protections