By LOUIS C. HOCHMAN
hochman@montclairlocal.news

Montclair public schools are piloting a tool that would let teachers monitor students' online activities, message students and even close students' browser tabs when logged into their district accounts.

The initiative is prompted by staff recommendations, and a need to keep students safe online, schools Superintendent Jonathan Ponds told Montclair Local. But it has prompted concerns about privacy among some parents and students, as word filtered out into the community over the last few days.

Ponds told Montclair Local in an email Friday the district has piloted the GoGuardian platform in several technology classrooms and recently conducted training for high school teachers. The platform has not yet been used districtwide, he said.

It's enabled when a student is logged into either a district-issued Chromebook or to a Chrome browser using an account on the district's MPSDNJ.US domain — it can't be used when a student is logged out of that account. Not all students use district-issued devices, but Montclair schools distributed more than 1,300 Chromebooks to students leading into the current school year.

Ponds said more training sessions would be coming up. He said the district would "communicate more about this service to all stakeholders before it becomes a districtwide initiative and get feedback and comments from our families." Later that day, Ponds announced the same in one of his weekly bulletins to the school community.

But by then, word of the platform's use had already been spreading in online communities. Montclair Local received multiple messages and was pointed to online posts from parents and students worried about privacy. Some were concerned students who only have access to district-issued devices would have less freedom to operate unmonitored online than their peers.

"I herewith specifically do NOT give consent to the use of goguardian on my son’s devices!" parent Boris Schaefer wrote Friday night in an email to Ponds, copied to Montclair Local. "Coming from a cultural background with back-to-back totalitarian regimes empowered by spying and denunciation, I am very sensible to the topic of personal privacy. The idea that teachers, BOE staff, IT administrators and who knows who can go through and record my son's search histories is mind-boggling! I object!"

Ponds, in his messages to Montclair Local, stressed GoGuardian "cannot access personal devices and files," though he also said it could be used on any device with a Chrome browser logged into the school's system.

The superintendent said teachers using the platform can close students' tabs, send messages to students and lock students' screens. Messages between a teacher and student are logged, he said. Students can't message one another through the platform.

"It may be helpful to know that 10,000 other schools, including our neighbors Millburn, Livingston, So. Orange-Maplewood and Orange, use GoGuardian," Ponds told Montclair Local by email, and the school community in his bulletin.

It's not only Montclair where some students or teachers worry about privacy while using the tool. Fifty-six petitions on Change.org ask school systems to do away with GoGuardian — some with just a few supporters, some with hundreds or thousands.

It works similarly to platforms such as Securly, Gaggle and Bark, which all prominently advertise their functions to keep students safe online.

At a Woodbridge Township school board meeting in 2018, one junior told officials "we have students so concerned about their privacy that they’re resorting to covering their [laptop] cameras and microphones with tape," as noted by Vice in its own exploration of the platforms' use.

GoGuardian offers a suite of tools, and the exact implementation depends on a school district's use of the system. In a promotional video for the GoGuardian Teacher product, the company says teachers "can see what students are doing on their devices, and whether their students are off-task or need help." It says teachers can push tabs to students to get them all focused on the same material, and lock them into using only sites needed for their lessons. Teachers can allow or disallow specific sites.

Another function alerts teachers when a student goes off-task — working on homework for another class, or "goofing off," the company says.

GoGuardian further lets teachers check their students' browsing histories to make sure they stayed on-task during a lesson, according to the video.

The company, in its online materials, says it doesn't sell, trade or rent student information — and that the school system owns the data it collects. It says schools can use GoGuardian to identify signs of at-risk behavior, but it's up to the school district to decide how to use the information it collects.

A "shield" logo appears in a Chrome browser, to the right of the URL bar, whenever a student is logged into a school account that uses GoGuardian and could be monitored, the company says. The logo doesn't indicate whether GoGuardian is active at that moment.

"If you want to log out of GoGuardian at home (e.g., after your child completes his/her homework), log them out of their school-managed account within the chrome browser, and, if your child logged into the device with his/her school-managed account (such as on a Chromebook or Windows device), log out of the device and log back in with your personal account," the company advises.

Montclair public schools have been operating entirely remotely since the novel coronavirus pandemic began in March 2020. A dispute between the district and the Montclair Education Association prevented a planned return for some in-person learning in January, and the district has since sued the union to force staffers to return to classrooms.