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Virtual Learning Safety Tips
Heading back to school is complex as students embark on a mixture of virtual learning, hybrid and in class instruction. Because so many are online, sometimes schools forget to effectively communicate directly with parents about the steps that need to be taken in order to keep our kids safe at school — and at home. Stories are flooding the news about kids experiencing hacked Zoom calls- and that’s just the beginning when it comes to dangers of online instruction.
Surely, this isn’t meant to scare parents; these tips are based on recognizable safety that has always been espoused by security experts. The importance of maintaining privacy for our children is the fundamental goal with most of these suggestions.
The student should be online with their back to the wall
Most cameras reveal more information in the background than is often considered by users. There are numerous stories of students, workers, or family members being embarrassed or shamed based on stuff left on the floor, open closets, reflections in mirrors, books on shelves, or pictures on a wall. This whole issue is easily avoided by turning the camera to face a wall. Family photos shared on Facebook or other platforms can be visible but remember that in a classroom setting, the fewer distractions the better. Students that get bored have been known to start perusing the backgrounds of their classmates. The best way to avoid any breach of safety is to not reveal anything in the first place.
Natural settings are often the go-to when it comes to background. The caution here is that the information can be used for unintended purposes. Lakes, buildings, trees, landmarks and other identifying characteristics can reveal a location of a house or building. Several media personalities have recently had their home addresses revealed by a simple comparison to Google maps. If privacy is a concern, a neutral background is best.
Another issue is the unintentional photo bomb. The internet is awash with parents walking into the background, younger siblings streaking by a doorway, or distracting animals. Limiting distractions will only enhance the learning environment for everyone.
Most school programs or online meeting platforms have an option that creates a background. If it is permitted by the teacher you can virtually locate your children on the beach, in front of the Eiffel Tower, the Great Pyramids, or the Grand Canyon to name a few. It is imperative that parents help their children learn these features.
Students should not be in their own room
The camera reveals too much about the private life of our children. This information should be kept within families and friends that are welcome in the home and not broadcast to the virtual world. We need to protect our children from the embarrassment that might occur. Situations like messy floors, dirty laundry, items left out or other potentially revealing items such as medications should not be within view. Having the camera in the bedroom creates too many opportunities for something like this to happen. The simplest way to avoid this is to keep the camera out of the room altogether.
When we are trying to protect our kids, we tell them not to talk to strangers. If a stranger has had an opportunity to view the child’s household, they might use that information to groom a child into a position of trust. A shared interest in a musical artist, toy, video game, movie or other hobby can break down the notion of a stranger and be used for nefarious purposes.
Students and parents need to know how to use the camera/microphone switches for on/off
A parent should always ask their child to mute the microphone when speaking to them. Other students don’t need the distraction and the information could be embarrassing. Also, parents might reveal information that could compromise the safety of the household; ‘I am running some errands. I’ll be back in a few hours.’ or ‘Enjoy the week, I’ll be on a trip through Wednesday.’ These things when overheard by others have the potential to alert unknown observers to the possibility of an empty house.
The best thing for parents to do is sit down with the student at the beginning of the school year. You should learn to use the controls and understand things like if the discussions are being recorded.
The student must always be told to log out after class. Leaving the program open until the next day could expose the entire family to compromise if conversations are overheard. Most programs log out once the ‘host’ has signed off. There are some teachers that choose to leave the virtual meeting open for other upcoming classes or other reasons. The best way to ensure safety from prying eyes and ears is to shut the program off.
You never know who is listening
We like to think the schools have taken the necessary steps to secure the learning environment. Unfortunately, they have limited control when it comes to the household. Family members, relatives, and even neighbors might use the same computers, networks, or WIFI for access. It is quite possible that anything revealed in the virtual classroom can be observed by outsiders. If not careful, the background over the student’s shoulder, reflections in mirrors or opened closets can potentially reveal information to people with less than pure motives. Students might be discussing with an online friend upcoming trips, activities or plans. Limiting the amount of personal information discussed in the open classroom is critical to maintaining privacy.
Remind your kids that everything is permanent
Students should be reminded that everything they type or do is being recorded. They may feel that no one is around, but that’s not the case. Bad habits like nose picking, thumb sucking, farting, and belching will be captured somewhere. While the schools will do their best to keep this private, it is always possible one of the other students is secretly recording the classroom.
There should be no jokes during class. Anything you type is being logged and saved. The school will keep a record of discussion boards. Any violations of bullying, harassment or inappropriate comments is still subject to discipline. Even a harmless gesture could be taken out of context so students should refrain from typing anything not specific to the discussion at hand. Inside jokes or references to past incidents at the school are not always appreciated and thus should be avoided.
Hacking is a problem
There have been several incidents of meetings being hacked by outsiders. In some instances, the perpetrator posts inappropriate sexual or violent images, makes disparaging comments about school personnel and spouts racially inflammatory language. A large portion of these incidents are due to the lax security at the onset of the virtual learning experience. Staff is instructed to post links on websites and send mass emails with multiple log in credentials depending on the class enrolled. Most of these problems have been addressed but there will still be breaches. Teachers and staff most likely have the ability to deactivate group sharing and cut video/audio streams should an incident occur. Talk to your kids about leaving a meeting if this happens.
As a precaution, students should be told never to share any links or emails from the teacher. Even if they think the recipient is a friend or classmate, all requests to ‘send me the link’ should be directed to the teacher. Second, when using any shared/public computers, make sure not to save username or password information. Many computers today will prompt you to save the data for convenience. Unless the computer is solely assigned to one student this option should be declined.
Finally, log on information should not be written down on something that can be easily seen by others or left behind. It is recommended that stored information be kept on a personal phone that can be locked in a section such as ‘notes’. The password should not be typed out but rather a ‘hint’ spelled out. While more sophisticated hacking is a threat, most breaches come from a simple failure to hide passwords.
Douglas B. Parisi, MPA is the Director of Training for SafeDefend. He is a former police captain with over 20 years of service he has personal experience with active shooter situations. Douglas works with schools, businesses, and government institutions on policy implementation, crisis response planning and threat mitigation.