Montclair schools have temporarily halted use of the online monitoring platform GoGuardian, after some parents and students told the district they’re worried about privacy and not sure they understand what monitoring is taking place. 

The district notified parents and students late Friday of the change, in one of schools Superintendent Jonathan Ponds’ weekly community bulletins. That followed a presentation from technology director Christopher Graber at a school board meeting earlier in the week, where Graber stressed the platform would only be in use during classroom sessions. 

“We have temporarily deactivated this classroom management tool until families have had a chance to review the information and ask questions,” Ponds wrote. “We will notify families on how we will move forward.”

Graber has had his own experience with GoGuardian. He has three children. And, as kids do, he said, they tend to leave a lot of tabs open, even during remote learning.

One of his children tried to access the game Fortnite during a class session, Graber told those attending the school board meeting. The teacher, using GoGuardian, noticed. 

“This is not to hinder them, to pressure them [that] we’re watching them,” he said. But instead, he told the school board and others attending, it’s to help students concentrate on their work. 

News of the district’s exploration of the platform — piloted in some technology classrooms starting last month — prompted some swift backlash, with hundreds of people signing an online petition to halt it. Several parents told Montclair Local they’re not completely clear where the limits of the monitoring are, or in some cases OK with their students being monitored at all. Some wondered whether their own data and computer use on personal devices could be swept up in GoGuardian’s logs. Chad A. Marlow, senior advocacy and policy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, argued that even during class time, it’s not a given students shouldn’t have privacy.

But others welcomed the oversight: “Most people of all ages wanted to go unmonitored at the time they were [the students’] age,” Lenny Gallo wrote in response to a Facebook post about GoGuardian by Montclair Local. “It’s called parenting, guidance, raising children ... you don't need to helicopter .. but ‘free range’ children usually end up in trouble .. no?”

At the school board meeting, member Jessica de Koninck said she welcomed the use of the platform: “I don’t think we need to have our students learning the same way that I did when I went to school in the 1960s,” she said. And member Allison Silverstein said she was “very grateful as a parent” it was being used.

GoGuardian offers a range of services, and some are capable of monitoring a device’s web activity 24/7, so long as it remains logged into a school system’s accounts. But the company has told Montclair Local that in Montclair’s case, the monitoring will be much more limited — active only during classroom sessions, and unable to see any activity that happens before or after class is done. 

The platform can be used on any district-issued Chromebook or other computer running a Chrome browser. It allows teachers to see, and even open or close, students’ browser tabs, as well as to message students privately. Records of those messages are kept as well.

Graber, at the school board meeting, stressed the limits of the monitoring: “It’s not working after hours, it’s not working in the evenings, it’s not working on the weekends. This is no different than a teacher in a classroom and walking behind a student.”

He said parents supervising remote learning often have to help their children navigate to specific pages for assignments, which can be a lot to manage — particularly if there are multiple children in the house or the parents have other responsibilities they need to attend to. He said GoGuardian puts the onus for guiding the online experience back on the teachers. 

“I have my own kids on it. I’m not trying to sell it. I don’t work for the company. I don’t make any money [from it]. I just believe as an educator — I taught many years — this levels the playing field for many of our families at home that are struggling, balancing between working at home and guiding their students,” Graber said.

And he said the district has a legal obligation to filter students’ online access.

One student told the school board she worried about GoGuardian’s use on private computers, saying, “The question is whether you plan to do this with consent or not.”

She brought up the example of a tab left open for one class, while a student was in another. A teacher might close an assignment that a student didn’t have time to finish before, for instance, running to the bathroom and the start of a new class, she said. If that assignment is due soon, it could hurt the student’s grade, she said.

“There is no line between what is important to students and important to teachers,” the student said. “It’s only what the teachers think because they’re the ones with the power in this situation here.”

Parent Paul Fishman, who identified himself as attorney, said the GoGuardian debate marked the second substantial communication failure between the district and families in February. The first, he said, was a letter describing a planned reformation of the Civics and Government Institute at Montclair High School, issued on a Friday night before a three-day weekend, that left parents wondering whether or how the program would move forward.

He said that as an attorney, he had questions about what exactly the district was doing to comply with the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act. GoGuardian, in its online materials, says any information it collects is owned by the school district and not sold or otherwise shared with third parties. 

Additionally, Fishman said, he had the impression board members had not been properly briefed on GoGuardian before the meeting.

Montclair Local has called the office of former United States Attorney for New Jersey Paul Fishman to confirm whether he’s the same attorney who addressed the school board. The former U.S. attorney is a Montclair resident.

Even before temporarily halting the platform’s use, Ponds said GoGuardian was only used so far in some technology classrooms, and the district would reach out to parents and students further before a broader rollout. 

When the platform is enabled, 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 actively being used for monitoring at that moment.

No version of GoGuardian is active when a non-school account is being used. On a Chromebook — like those issued to 1,300 students heading into the current school year — logging out means ending a computing session entirely. On another computer with a Chrome browser, that means entering the settings for “Sync and Google services,” then under “People,” clicking the option “Turn Off.”

Montclair schools continue to operate entirely remotely, as they have since the novel coronavirus pandemic hit New Jersey in March of last year. The district and it’s teachers union are fighting in court over whether and when to return to some level of in-person learning.