October 21, 2020

In March of this year, Americans watched in horror as the COVID-19 virus began its swift spread across the country. Many businesses were forced to close their doors until further notice, and students became online learners overnight. This shift to online learning turned out to be difficult for many college students. The situation the virus brought on has persisted into the fall.

Colleges have been strategic with their reopening plans, leading to the popular use of contact tracing; a method of tracking both the health of students and of those they have come in contact with to reduce the spread of the virus on campuses.

Many schools, including North Central, have already adopted plans that include contact tracing, allowing them to resume in-person education with students on campus. This has caused concern about how the different methods of contact tracing infringe on their privacy. The school is using the app, #CampusClear.  It has students report on their health and of those they have been in contact with on a daily basis.

Nathan Stuart, Director of Information Technology, elaborated on how North Central stores and protects students’ data. This app collects device and telemetry information, daily health survey responses, and the email or phone number of the student. All data collected by #CampusClear is stored on their cloud servers, and the only individuals who have access to decrypt the data are staff members tasked with contact tracing and authorized by the school.

Kate Ketterling, Director of Human Resources and a member of the COVID-19 Response Team says, “Currently there are only two people on campus who have access to #CampusClear data. Those who assist with contact tracing outside of these two are provided only case-specific information they need to follow up on and are never given access to the whole data set.”Under the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), North Central does not share protected data with those who have no right to see it. 

“The only exception to this is in accordance with FERPA’s health and safety emergency exceptions [34 CFR §§ 99.31(a)(10) and 99.36], which allows the university to disclose Personally Identifiable Information (PII) from a student’s education records to appropriate parties to address a health or safety emergency,” said Stuart, “FERPA’s health or safety emergency provision permits such disclosures when the disclosure is necessary to protect the health or safety of the student or other individuals. This exception does not allow COVID to be a blanket for which all information can be shared at any time.”

While North Central’s method of contact tracing keeps students’ privacy protected, anyone who doesn’t use the #CampusClear app is not allowed to be on campus. Any students who do not report on the app before entering campus will be subject to consequences from the Office of Communications. All efforts are in place to keep students, faculty and staff safe, keeping campus open and in-person classes running.

North Central’s COVID response raises questions about students’ privacy.