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A Gray Area For Seattle Public Schools’ Legal Department

Microsoft Teams Meetings can be recorded, potentially infringing on student privacy

Adria Cooper, Features Editor
Originally published November 17th, 2020

Cartoon by Sam Rainville

Cartoon by Sam Rainville

With the COVID-19 pandemic, all aspects of life have changed. This could not be more true for schooling—from online classes to canceled sports and activities, to overwhelmed students and overworked teachers. Online school using Microsoft Teams creates struggle for both teachers and students, but also may cause issues for the Seattle Public Schools’ legal department.

The Microsoft Teams website says, “Any Teams meeting or call can be recorded to capture audio, video, and screen sharing activity. The recording happens in the cloud, and it is saved so you can share it securely across your organization.” This causes a possible breach of student privacy because if students have their cameras on and the meeting is being recorded, their faces will appear in the recording.

While you have to dig deep to find any mention of Microsoft Teams online classes being recorded, there is no mention that this could include students’ faces being recorded. Seattle Public Schools’ website has an FAQ about online learning and this is what it says: “With the school year beginning remotely, live lessons from your student’s teacher may be recorded for students to watch at other times via Schoology and/or Seesaw. This means that your student’s work may be shared with their class for the purpose of collaboration.” 

Ronald Boy, Senior General Counsel for Seattle Public Schools says this possibility of classes being recorded doesn’t violate FERPA (Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act). “FERPA protects student education records which are those records, files, documents, and other materials which (i) contain information directly related to a student; and (ii) are maintained by an educational agency or institution or by a person acting for such agency or institution. In most classroom lessons, there will not be an education record created or released,” Boy said in an email interview.

There are, however, some situations that would go against FERPA; “if there was a discipline incident that occurs that is recorded as part of the lesson and that discipline incident is then documented on an NDA and/or the student’s discipline history, the portion of the recording that captured the incident would not be able to be released as it would be a part of the subject student’s record,” Boy said. “Another scenario that I can think of where a recording could not be released would be if a teacher discussed a student’s grade or attendance in class – that would be more unlikely and not best practice, but that information would have been derived from the student’s education record and would be protected.”

Boy also says that there are no state privacy laws being broken either. “RCW 9.73.030(1) is the state law in regard to recording and requires two elements to be met: (1) that the participants were involved in a private conversation; and (2) that one or more of the participants were recorded without their knowledge/consent,” Boy said. “ For us as a school district, it is rare to have conversations that are private.  In a school setting classes are not private, so the law does not apply because both elements must be met and the first is not,” he continued. 

Boy says that Seattle Public Schools is not allowing the videos to be posted anywhere outside of the organization. “We have committed to only using the recordings within the class that is recorded and will not share it within the school or district,” Boy said. However, these recordings staying secure depend on teachers knowing that they cannot share them anywhere.

Sommer Dean is a Staff Attorney at the Student Press Law Center. She says that there is no real clear answer. “Distance learning is creating a lot of new questions about privacy, new questions about how privacy law interacts with this type of learning. I think that it’s definitely a gray area,” Dean said. 

Dean argues that privacy laws are altogether different with online schools now, as school is a place where you normally have no expectation of privacy and at home you do have that expectation of privacy. “Even though a person is sitting in their living room or bedroom taking part in this class, and they know it is still sort of like a public forum where they know other classmates will be there, they are still in their own homes,” Dean said. “Again, it’s different from your normal questions of privacy. If these students were walking down the street talking or taking part in any sort of activity that was public, they wouldn’t have any expectation of privacy. This is just a different scenario and I think we are all just trying to learn as we go.”

While there may be no legal issue as of now with Microsoft Teams meetings being recorded, there may be an ethical one if students’ faces could be recorded and they have not been abundantly made aware of that. While students are not required to have their cameras on, they should be aware that if they do have them on they could end up being recorded.

Times are changing, and so these privacy laws are too. Dean and Boy both agree that as of now there should be a heads up for the recordings of Microsoft Teams Meetings. “As a courtesy it would seem that the school would inform students or parents or guardians of the possibility that they would be recorded,” Dean said. Boy’s response reflected this as well: “ I believe it is best practice, but not a legal requirement, for teachers to begin every class with a reminder that the class is being recorded and the reason why. Something such as, ‘Good morning scholars! So nice to see you today. Remember that this lesson is going to be recorded for students who are absent or for you to look back on in case you have questions. If you would like, you can turn off your camera, but I love to see your faces and it makes it easier for me to teach to faces instead of blank boxes – it is completely up to you though,’” Boy said.

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A Gray Area For Seattle Public Schools’ Legal Department