A survey sent to 900 Saskatchewan Teachers’ Federation (STF) members allowed teachers to breach the privacy of potentially thousands of students, according to the province’s privacy commissioner.
In June 2019, the STF sent an email to its union members asking them to complete an online survey in order to inform its bargaining committee about class size and composition.
Despite reaching an agreement in April, classroom dynamics proved to be a hurdle during STF and provincial government negotiations
The survey asked teachers to score students on a scale of zero to four in 16 areas, which included topics like attendance, behaviour, parent contact and several others. Students weren’t named, but their initials were used.
Praxis Analytics was recruited to set up the online survey, collect and analyze the data, and provide findings to the STF.
The metrics allowed a “unique profile” to be formed, which meant students could be identified regardless of their initials being used, according to the report from Saskatchewan Information and Privacy Commissioner Ronald Kruzeniski.
“Of those who completed the survey, a common theme was that they trusted that the STF would have done its due diligence,” Kruzeniski wrote, stating he is “disturbed” by the explanation.
It remains unclear exactly how many teachers completed the survey, as the data has been deleted. The STF and Praxis Analytics both stated between 200 and 300 surveys were completed before the survey was suspended.
According to the report, if there are between 15 and 40 students in a class and if 200 teachers completed the survey, then potentially 3,000 to 8,000 students were affected by the privacy breach.
School division investigations stated 116 teachers told their superiors that they completed the survey.
The privacy commissioner said teachers who filled out the questionnaire demonstrated “a complete lack of understanding of the fundamentals with respect to privacy and (privacy legislation).”
Kruzeniski said the lack of knowledge “is the true root cause of this egregious privacy breach,” while also writing that Praxis Analytics and the STF neglected to conduct a “privacy impact assessment.”
In an interview with Global News, STF president Patrick Maze said it is “sensationalistic” to call the survey an egregious breach. Maze said the STF brought on a reputable third party surveying company, no data was leaked, no data was misused and no data was misplaced.
“It’s unfortunate,” Maze said.
“No teachers expressed concerns that way and I think teachers were actually quite excited to tell their story and hoped that it would bring much-needed support to our classrooms.”
Six days after the survey’s launch, the Saskatchewan School Boards Association (SSBA) raised privacy concerns to board chairs and directors of education in the province.
Maze said the outcome is particularly frustrating because he feels the information on class size and composition would be useful to school divisions and the provincial government.
“We’re trying to improve classroom learning and student learning conditions in the province, which everyone agrees is a problem,” Maze said.
SSBA president Shawn Davidson said the privacy commissioner’s finding isn’t surprising, as it confirms his organization’s initial concerns. Private student data can be collected discretely through school divisions and the ministry of education, Davidson said.
“Staff members are used to handling confidential and sensitive information. In this particular case, it was just released through the wrong channels,” Davidson said.
A committee that includes the STF, SSBA and provincial government is currently examining issues around classroom size and complexity.
The STF’s president said he is hopeful the effort will provide useful results by the end of the 2020-21 school year. If not, he said class size and composition will surely resurface as an issue in future bargaining.