- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 8, 2020

The Teachers Union Ate My Homework

Wall Street Journal

April 6

The coronavirus has shut down schools across America, and desperate parents are scrambling to ensure their children’s education doesn’t suffer. The U.S. Department of Education could help with some guidance about how schools can move forward on remote teaching. If the feds don’t take the lead, the teachers unions will-to the detriment of students.

Not every student has a laptop and Wi-Fi to study online during the shutdowns. In some districts, this inevitably has an adverse effect on poor students or children who don’t speak English as their first language. Schools fear that if they produce online lessons that not all students can access, they could lose federal funding or face litigation under the Civil Rights Act or the Equal Educational Opportunities Act.

The teachers unions loathe assessments in the best of times, and now they’re claiming that the only fair recourse is to stop tracking the progress of all students until schools reopen. For students “who have no online access to teacher tutoring with visual aids, mandatory grading is essentially a guarantee that they will be left behind,” says Chicago Teachers Union spokeswoman Chris Geovanis.

School administrators are accepting this argument. But their determination to sidestep liability has made the switch to remote education even more sluggish. The University of Washington’s Center on Reinventing Public Education looked at 82 public-school districts and reported Friday that 27 aren’t offering any customized curriculum or remote instruction. Only 13 districts require teachers to grade some of the remote work done by students.

The majority of school districts are treating remote offerings as optional “supplemental,” “enrichment” or “review” material instead of for-credit class work. Among the few schools that do grade, some have moved to pass/fail. Chicago Public Schools, in new guidance for parents, says it will let teachers review assignments, but “grades will be counted only if they improve a student’s grade. Grades will not negatively impact any student’s academic standing.” Chicago is not alone in this approach.

This is equitable only in its disservice to students. Administrators are forcing all children attending public schools to put their education on hold, depriving them of its structure in a chaotic time. Kids who are equipped to study remotely will lack incentive if their work counts for nothing. Schools won’t have the metrics to identify which children are falling behind during the shutdowns and will need remediation later. Bad teachers will escape accountability for their failures. In Chicago the data will make their performance look better than it really was.

The Education Department could help by giving school districts some clarity about the path forward. It has already offered helpful guidance on how to ensure schools don’t run afoul of disability law, and it should provide similar guidance to schools worried about exacerbating racial and economic inequities.

Some school boards and nonprofits are already working hard to provide laptops and Wi-Fi access to the neediest students. State and federal lawmakers could set aside funding for extra help for the kids who struggle most during the shutdowns. It’s not a perfect fix, but it’s better than bluntly concluding that fairness requires canceling everyone’s education.

Online: https://on.wsj.com/2wpEtLn


Privacy Cannot Be a Casualty of the Coronavirus

The New York Times

April 7

Millions of Americans, sheltering in their homes from the coronavirus, have turned to communications platforms like Zoom, Google Hangouts and Facebook Messenger in order to work or stay connected to friends and family. Free and easy to use, the services are gobbling up record numbers of new users.

But there’s a saying in Silicon Valley: If the product is free, you are the product.

This is not business as usual, though. Americans aren’t willingly surrendering their online identities during this pandemic - many are being compelled to do so by their schools, family or work. Just as a swath of manufacturers are switching their production lines to ventilator and mask production for the greater good, corporations that normally view every new registered user as a data point to exploit need to take a pause on profiting from online data harvesting.

For those fortunate enough to have laptops and reliable broadband internet at home, it is not sufficient to simply update privacy policies or customer agreements. Americans need a guarantee that conversations held over video chat won’t be data collection events.

The videoconferencing company Zoom has been a standout brand of the pandemic, in part because its daily user numbers ballooned to 200 million in March from 10 million last year, making it one of the few buoyant stocks amid the recent sell-off.

New York State’s attorney general started an investigation into Zoom, calling on it to proactively beef up security measures, rather than just in response to negative press reports about lapses in privacy protection. And the F.B.I. warned that Zoom was susceptible to a form of digital hijacking known as “Zoombombing” following incidents where hackers joined online meetings to harass participants with racist or graphic taunts, raising the specter that personal user data might be vulnerable, too.

The New York Times also found that Zoom displayed some data from people’s LinkedIn profiles without their permission, a flaw Zoom says it has fixed.

Zoom’s chief executive, Eric Yuan, apologized for the lax security practices, including the transfer of customer data en masse to Facebook, reported by Motherboard. The company said it was halting new feature releases for three months to focus on security.

Skittish about risks to the privacy of their students, a number of school districts, including those in New York City, Pittsburgh and Clark County, Nev., home of Las Vegas, won’t allow classes to be conducted over Zoom, further interrupting the already bumpy launch of virtual learning. Officials said they were concerned that default settings allow for heightened data gathering and that parents may not have the tech savvy to disable such features.

Jeff Ericson, a father of two students in Pittsburgh, said he’d grudgingly agree to whatever terms Microsoft sets for use of its video software in the district. “Like anybody, I care about my kids’ privacy, but I also don’t want them missing out on any more time with their teacher, so what choice do I have really?” he said.

Technology companies see an opportunity in this crisis. Verily, a division of Google’s parent company, requires a Google account to find and arrange coronavirus testing and says it may share your personal health information with contractors, government agencies and other outside parties.

Video-chat tools like Zoom and Microsoft Teams are stirring concerns that they may be using data vacuuming technologies on the most vulnerable. Schools and businesses that now rely on such services often give people no choice but to accept their terms of service.

Harried parents seeking a remedy for their kids’ isolation could be forgiven for not poring over book-length privacy policies before connecting them with grandparents on video chat or entertaining them with a few hours of streaming YouTube videos.

Elizabeth Johnson, a lawyer in North Carolina who specializes in data privacy, is at a loss for a solution when her two children, ages 10 and 12, want to use videoconferencing services that she knows will harvest their data. “I have no idea what to do about it,” said Ms. Johnson. “Staying in school now is more important than an amorphous future where companies have made inferences about my children as online consumers.”

Time and again, corporations have shown that, for them, the value of huge data stores that can inform advertisers or their own product development trumps any potential embarrassment over how it was compiled. Smart home speakers record our private conversations, and smartphones track users with distressingly accurate precision.

A recent study from researchers at Northeastern University and Imperial College London found that smart speakers from Google, Apple and Amazon can accidentally activate as many as 19 times daily and record snippets of more than 40 seconds without users knowing.

Not content with having millions of Americans forced onto their platforms for work or pleasure, the tech industry is also using the pandemic as an excuse to seek the rollback of the modest privacy protections that exist.

In January, millions of Americans got the opportunity for the first time to request a detailed readout of the personal dossiers that multinational companies collect and to compel those businesses to no longer sell their data, thanks to the landmark California Consumer Privacy Act.

The results were eye-popping. The law helped expose the extent of corporations’ data collection, including logs of every tap on a Kindle e-reader, detailed credit card data, email addresses, complete lists of past purchases and inferences about customer preferences, like which movies they are most likely to watch.

Yet, as the pandemic bore down on the United States, a coalition of trade groups petitioned California’s attorney general, Xavier Becerra, to delay enforcement of the privacy law until next year. If a delay is granted, corporations will be reprieved from requirements that include disclosing personal information they collect about Californians. (The attorney general’s office has taken no action.)

Instead of trying to worm out of privacy regulations, companies providing critical connectivity services should apply that energy to limiting data collection during the national emergency to only what they need to operate and to give additional reassurances that their services comply with child protection laws.

Many companies make it exceedingly difficult to opt out of data collection, burying permissions deep on their websites or frequently changing privacy policies that dictate how and how often personal information can be harvested. Once you start using some services it can also be hard to stop, particularly if your files or photos are stored there, a desirable feature among tech companies known as lock-in.

“They understand that we as consumers are lazy,” said Alastair Mactaggart, who leads the board of Californians for Consumer Privacy. “We don’t take the precautions we should, and these companies are able to capitalize on it. So this could be a boon for them.”

It may be tempting for corporations to view their ballooning user numbers during the pandemic as a harbinger of long-term prosperity. But consumers need the option to delete user profiles after the crisis has abated, particularly if they have stored sensitive information about their children, and they deserve easy access to what has been collected.

Americans have lost control over a lot as a result of the coronavirus. At least they should be able to control what happens to their personal data.

Online: https://nyti.ms/34muSS4


Obey the rules or pay the price

Utica Observer-Dispatch

April 8

State and local leaders are cracking down on people who violate the rules on social distancing to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

It’s about time.

On Monday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Oneida County Executive Anthony Picente both announced plans to hold people accountable for their lack of responsibility.

Cuomo noted that the number of positive coronavirus cases and deaths across the state continue to rise, although there are signs that they are beginning to level off. Despite that glimmer of hope, however, the governor said schools and non-essential businesses will remain closed through April 29 because the pandemic still makes it unsafe to resume normal life.

The governor also rightfully decided to play hardball with violators of social distancing rules by doubling down on the punishment – doubling the fine to $1,000.

“Frankly, there has been a laxness on social distancing, especially over this past weekend,” Cuomo said, noting rising numbers of New Yorkers coming out as the weather warmed. “That is just wholly unacceptable.”

He said they run the risk of becoming infected, going to the emergency room, and exposing many others by such a lack of responsibility.

“Now is not the time to be lax, and it is a mistake,” he said.

County Executive Picente embraced a similar get-tough attitude, noting that the number of positive cases in Oneida County, too, continues to climb. He ordered all visitors to county buildings to wear face masks or other coverings to help prevent the spread of the virus.

Picente also cited complaints of mass gatherings and businesses that are not following state mandates on social distancing, and said that the Oneida County Sheriff’s Office will be enforcing the guidelines at essential businesses. He said the county already has a list of offending businesses from New Hartford, New York Mills and Trenton.

Picente says the offenders first get a warning; a second notice could result in fines or revocation of health and alcohol permits.

The crackdown is critical. We’d like to think that everyone has the good sense to follow the rules. Most people do, as indicated by the ghost-like downtown and lack of traffic. But there are pockets of irresponsibility, and those people are putting the rest of us at risk.

“There is a real danger in getting overconfident,” Cuomo said. “This is an enemy that we have underestimated from day one, and we have paid the price dearly.”

Those violating the social distancing rules should pay the price dearly, too, via steep fines and/or loss of liquor license. But it needn’t come to that. Just obey the rules and don’t put others at risk.

Online: https://bit.ly/39VpRBh


Unemployment filing system is failing New Yorkers

The Auburn Citizen

April 8

Amid the praise he’s getting for his calm demeanor and decisive leadership, Gov. Andrew Cuomo needs to be more forceful in addressing a festering problem with the state’s pandemic response: a failing unemployment claim filing process.

The shuttering of businesses statewide has led to an enormous surge in the number of people suddenly unable to pay for their basic household necessities. As tens of thousands try to apply for unemployment benefits, the state Department of Labor has been unable to keep up, despite streamlining the claims process, dedicating more than 700 people to the telephone claim center, and adding additional servers to support its website capacity.

There are horror stories everywhere about people unable to file because they can’t get through on phones - and the website times out in the middle of the process or crashes altogether. In some cases, people being directed to make a phone call after trying to register online are unable to get through to complete the process.

The labor department has been active with a public relations campaign that says they are working harder than ever and want everyone to be assured they will get the money they are due. But for many people, weeks of delays are going to be devastating as they try to keep their families sheltered and fed.

We urge our state legislators to demand that more be done to fix this problem. Families in dire financial straits need all the backup they can get from the elected representatives who took an oath to work on their behalf.

The bottom line is that Cuomo needs to be bold and forceful in ramping up the state’s unemployment filing system or waiving more of the common steps this process requires. The economic crisis is just as real as the health crisis, and New York needs to handle it as such.

Online: https://bit.ly/2URD9dy


We Simply Can’t Afford To Be Spending Money We Don’t Have


April 6

No doubt some members of Congress had to hold their noses while they were voting for the $2.2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act. CARES includes a ton of money for initiatives that have nothing to do with COVID-19. Why on earth did anyone think it was important to cough up $25 million for the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, in Washington, D.C.?

Still, members of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives were right to approve the bill, in overwhelming bipartisan fashion. Handling it as nearly all legislation is dealt with on Capitol Hill would have delayed critical assistance for months.

Additional spending to help Americans deal with and rebound from the epidemic is being considered now. It may include trillions more in federal spending - and that spells opportunity for special interests of both the ideological and financial kinds.

“Green New Deal” spending sought by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and other ultra-liberals was excluded from the CARES Act. Rest assured they will try again.

Other proposals, such as one to spend billions of dollars on what supporters call a “Lifeline” initiative to expand broadband internet access, also will be brought forth. Clearly, by the time additional broadband funding could be spent, the immediate health-related need for it would be over.

Again, however, ideology-related proposals are far from the only peril in a second COVID-19 recovery bill. The CARES Act already includes a measure some critics have said could save wealthy real estate investors as much as $170 billion during the next decade. Is that really necessary?

Lawmakers and President Donald Trump did the right thing in acting quickly on the CARES Act. Reasonable objections to some provisions in its 880 pages had to be put aside to ensure tens of millions of Americans know the help they need is coming quickly.

But moving forward, more care needs to be taken to avoid making CARES Version 2.0 a giveaway to special interests of all kinds. With the national debt at $23.6 trillion - plus $2.2 trillion - we simply can’t afford to spend money we don’t have unless the need is clear and critical.

Online: https://bit.ly/2URGolq


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