Not Everything Has Changed: The Rules About Electronic Communications Still Apply

Teachers around Texas and the entire United States are adjusting to the “new normal” of distance learning, which has greatly increased the quantity of electronic communications among educators, parents, and students. It’s important not to forget the preexisting rules that apply to electronic communications. Here’s a quick refresher:
 
Know your district’s policy and keep up with any updates.
All districts are required to have a school board-approved electronic communications policy. The policy can generally be found on the district’s website, often under the “School Board” or “About Us” tab, but you might need to search a bit. Look for a reference to the Texas Association of School Boards, and a link is usually close by. Once you click the link, you’ll see a menu. You will probably need to click on the “D Personnel” tab and then the “DH” tab. Most districts’ electronic communications policies are located in Policy DH(LOCAL), but again, you might need to poke around a bit.
 
Circumstances are changing fast, and traditional electronic communication policies were not designed for full-scale distance learning, so make sure you keep up with any changes your district makes to adjust to current needs.
 
Student confidentiality rules still apply.
You might be communicating in different ways but remember that much student information is still as confidential as it always has been. You can, and often must, share information with a student’s parents. You can also share confidential information with a peer who has a legitimate educational interest in the information. You just need to exercise your usual care in sharing information.
 
Work-related communications are still subject to the Texas Public Information Act and a directive from your district.
If you are an employee of a public school district or public charter school, a member of the public can request a copy of your work-related electronic communications. However, many types of records are exempt from public disclosure, so the fact a request is made does not mean the records have to be shared. Perhaps more importantly, your school administration may demand that you share any work-related communications with them. This is important to remember in this era when comments to colleagues are more likely to be electronic. Be careful venting or complaining in writing!
 
You are a legal “temporary custodian” of public records and cannot delete them unless the district has a copy.
As noted above, any work-related communication is legally considered a public record, even if it would not have to be shared with the public. Under Texas law, unless the district has a copy of the record, you are required to either turn the record over to the district or keep it for as long as the district would retain it if it had possession. This makes using district-supplied communication platforms, such as ClassDojo, Remind 101, Google Classroom, or Zoom especially advantageous as the district likely has access to them, relieving you of a duty to maintain records personally. (Learn more about this requirement in the Spring 2020 ATPE News.)
 
Take care when recording students.
The Texas Education Code places restrictions on recording students without parental permission. If your distance-learning plan involves recording students, make sure your administration is aware and has approved the plan to avoid potential later trouble.  
 
Take care in your communications with students and parents.
Everyone is anxious in the current situation. This is bringing out the best in many people. But there is also frustration. Be careful to make sure that your communications with parents and students present you at your professional best. It goes without saying that you need to remember the rules about appropriate communications with students. Don’t communicate anything that could look suspicious if taken out of context. You don’t want to this universal health crisis to turn into a personal professional crisis.
 
The legal information provided here is for general purposes only. Individual legal situations vary greatly, and readers needing individual legal advice should consult directly with an attorney. Eligible ATPE members may contact the ATPE Member Legal Services Department. 
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