CPS teachers ‘blindsided’ after access to popular classroom software yanked due to new student privacy law

The district’s interpretation of Illinois’ Student Online Personal Protection Act has resulted in teachers losing access to key programs, they say.

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A student practices coding with Scratch programing language on a laptop.

Students from CPS elementary schools learn to code in Scratch programing language in Chicago. Teachers are now prohibited from using Scrach in classrooms due to CPS’ interpretation of a new student data privacy law.

Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Online privacy advocates in recent years pushed Illinois lawmakers to force school districts to protect student data — but some Chicago Public Schools teachers say they were “blindsided” by the district’s enforcement of the law that’s led them to lose access to key programs used to teach thousands of students.

Gov. J.B Pritzker signed amendments to the Student Online Personal Protection Act in 2019, strengthening the law that regulates how local and state officials handle student data and giving parents greater control over their children’s personal information.

School systems had until July of this year to move into compliance. The changes spurred suburban and downstate schools to rethink their contracts with software companies to safeguard student data while finding new ways to give kids and educators access to the applications they know and need for school.

But at CPS, the way officials have applied the law has meant popular educational tools have been taken away from thousands of students and forced teachers to reinvent their curricula.

“We’re depriving hundreds of thousands of students from proven effective, often free resources,” said Jeff Solin, who teaches computer science at Lane Tech High School.

Among the software products that violate the law, CPS now says, are programs like Code.org, which is widely used in computer science classes, and Adobe applications used for artistic design and newspaper page layouts. That left has many high school newspapers unable to produce their print editions.

Also off limits is Scratch, software to create interactive stores, animations and games. CPS had partnered with the Scratch Foundation to hold family coding nights, among other events.

Cassie Creswell, the director of the education advocacy group, Illinois Families for Public Schools, helped author the new data privacy act. But Creswell is concerned about how CPS has interpreted the law.

Creswell said the district’s stringent interpretation of the law has resulted in a contracting process that is “onerous” for vendors.

Other districts in the state have developed their SOPPA compliance contracts by joining the Illinois Student Privacy Alliance, which provides access to existing contracts with vendors, Creswell said. Students in other Illinois districts, as a result, can use software that CPS students no longer can.

Without access at CPS, teachers said they are now scrambling to redesign curricula after they weren’t adequately informed of how the student privacy law might impact the software they can use.

A district spokesperson told the Sun-Times that while students have temporarily lost access to some software, CPS is “working with these vendors toward a solution to restore these services that help to enhance the CPS experience.”

The Chicago Computer Science Teachers Association is now calling for the district to revisit current data privacy policies. Brannon said she would like to see the district involve educators in the SOPPA compliance process.

“We feel like we’ve been just blindsided. We didn’t think beyond belief that the curriculum that we have been relying on would be yanked from us without much of a warning,” said Faythe Brannon, the president of the Chicago Computer Science Teachers Association. “It feels as though we’re going to shortchange our students because we’re not as prepared as we could be.”

Solin teaches microarchitecture, a computer engineering class, at Lane Tech and he still does not know if the students are allowed to use software the course is based on.

“I may very well be in jeopardy of not being able to use it and my entire curriculum is based on this,” Solin said. “I’ve spent hundreds of hours developing my curriculum, iterating my curriculum, finding out what works what doesn’t work. ... Part of me wants to just not reach out because I’m scared to find out what the answer is.”

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