Jul 30 2021

CoSN Awards TLE Seal to Rural Virginia District

Rockingham County Public Schools formed a student data privacy team and re-examined its protections before applying for the designation.

In June, the Consortium for School Networking announced it had awarded Rockingham County Public Schools, a rural Virginia district, the Trusted Learning Environment Seal. The TLE Seal is a dedication given to schools that demonstrate a commitment to student data protection in accordance with CoSN’s framework.

For RCPS Technology Director Kevin Perkins, the work to meet these guidelines began much earlier, in the first months of 2019. He had earned his Certified Education Technology Leader certification from CoSN in 2016 and joined the organization as an institutional member. Looking at the numerous online resources used in education, it was clear to Perkins that the district needed a plan for protecting student data.

“We’re using a lot of these resources, and they take student data, so we should make sure we’re doing this in the best way possible,” Perkins says. “The CoSN guidelines are really the only existing framework for K–12 school divisions that are out there.”

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The District Assembles a Team to Protect Student Data

In the early stages of examining his district’s student data privacy practice, Perkins realized he was going to need a team. “All of the school divisions that have earned this seal have a district-level data privacy team,” Perkins says. “So, one of the first things we did was put that together.”

The RCPS data privacy team consists of nine individuals, including the district’s superintendent and its two assistant superintendents.

“We’re fortunate and a little bit unique here because our superintendent, Oskar Scheikl, was a former technology director for our division,” Perkins notes. “He also has a graduate degree in computer security.”

This made it easier to convey to leadership the importance of developing a student data privacy framework for the district, Perkins says. Scheikl gave his support to the plan right away, and once the data privacy team came together, the district was able to start meeting the CoSN guidelines.

The IT Team Vets New Online Resources

One policy Perkins and the team implemented was a system through which teachers could request digital resources. As part of a new workflow, RCPS educators can put in a request whenever they want to start using a new resource, and the technology department then reviews it. This allows the IT team to vet any new technologies to ensure they are safe and in line with the district’s budget and curricula.

Teachers have been on board with the additional step for acquiring new resources, Perkins says. “We were careful to communicate it in terms of ‘this is about student data. It’s important, and it’s our job to protect it.’ I think teachers understand that,” he says.

Having the technology department vet resources also takes the pressure off teachers, Perkins adds, because they then don’t need to investigate the resource themselves. Educators have enough on their plates, and dealing with the consequences of a pandemic has added to that.

RELATED: Influencer Randall Sampson discusses using student data to improve equity.

The Pandemic Changes Student Data Privacy Needs

The biggest shift for the student data privacy team in March 2020 was the increase in online resources. Suddenly, students and educators didn’t just want to use online tools, they had to. “The pandemic introduced even more online resources for people to use, and student data is needed to make those resources useful for students and teachers,” Perkins says.

Kevin Perkins
The pandemic introduced even more online resources for people to use, and student data is needed to make those resources useful for students and teachers.”

Kevin Perkins Technology Director, Rockingham County Public Schools

The district also took steps to more carefully examine their cybersecurity practices when students moved to online learning. To meet its cybersecurity needs, RCPS implemented more training for its educators. This was part of the work toward earning the TLE Seal, and the results were more than IT leaders expected.

In response to a phishing campaign done by the school, Perkins found “one of the ramifications was that people got really good at identifying suspicious looking emails. Over the past academic year, when legitimate emails were sent out — say, from our HR department — if people weren’t anticipating it, they said ‘Hey, is this a legitimate email?’ And that’s actually good.”

DIVE DEEPER: What do K–12 leaders need to know about whaling?

Building up their cybersecurity practices in this way, in addition to the other work the district performed, allowed RCPS to confidently apply for the TLE seal. Having received the designation this summer, the student data privacy team is already considering the next steps for reapplication.

The District Looks Ahead and Offers Advice to Other K–12 Leaders

To maintain TLE status, schools must reapply every two years with evidence that they have improved their student data protection practices.

One of the ways RCPS plans to do this is through additional training for educators. “It’s about making people aware and changing their behaviors, and that’s just something that takes time,” Perkins says. “Whether it’s the cybersecurity awareness or the phishing training or requesting digital resources in a particular way, we’re just going to keep advocating.”

Perkins admits that the CoSN framework can be intimidating at first glance, but he encourages other K–12 IT leaders to take the self-assessment and examine what they’re already doing. His advice is to start small and tackle one aspect of the framework at a time to make progress. This is how RCPS started, and now they have a TLE Seal to show for their work.

“The recognition is nice, but it’s not why we did it. We did it to protect student data and because we feel like it’s the right thing to do,” Perkins says.

KEEP READING: These five tips help K–12 leaders effectively gather student data.

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