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Citation needed – How schools should tackle COVID-19 misinformation

Craig Stilwell offers some advice for schools on how to avoid the misinformation headaches that can be communicated and perpetuated by social media...

  • Citation needed – How schools should tackle COVID-19 misinformation

Fake news is everywhere, turbocharged by social media platforms where ‘facts’, sources and motivations aren’t subject to proper scrutiny and challenge. To paraphrase Jonathan Swift, falsehood flies on social media, while the truth is left limping behind.

The schools I work with across England and Wales know this only too well. Since the beginning of September this year, they’ve been dealing with letters from a small minority of parents who claim there are legal grounds on which to challenge the school’s responsibility to provide student and parent details to test and trace authorities.

These typically letters cite now defunct legislation, while stating that neither the parent nor their child consent to participating in test and trace procedures (often incorrectly referred to as ‘track and trace’) and do not want their contact details passed to the NHS or any other agency for said purposes.

I’ve seen more than 50 such letters within just the last month or so. They’re largely based on a template sourced from social media platforms and shared between networks, which requires the sender to simply top and tail it with their own personal details before sending it to their school.

These letters might fail the truth test at the first hurdle, but they can still be disconcerting for schools already frantically busy dealing all manner of upheaval wrought by COVID-19. Schools can better prepare themselves to meet such challenges, however, by observing the following simple steps:

1 | Get expert advice

Even if you’re sure of your position, always seek advice from experts and stakeholders. If, for example, you receive a letter that challenges your conduct on the basis of data protection law, refer this to either your DPO or an external expert who can give you definitive advice.

It’s often the case that you’ll need to defer to external agencies, such as Public Health England, Public Health Wales or the NHS, because responsibility ultimately lies with them. The key point to bear in mind is that you shouldn’t be forced into making any decisions without first giving the matter careful consideration and consulting with the relevant bodies.

2 | Keep referring to the guidelines

Official government guidance changes and changes often, so always keep checking it – even if you’re sure that your immediate response is the right one. Something may well have altered since you last referred to it. If you receive a challenge regarding the submission of personal details to test and trace authorities, knowing the guidance will help you navigate the right course.

The latest ICO guidance, for example, states that a school does not need consent to gain details to share with test and trace officials because it is required to do this in the interest of public health.

3 | Be scrupulously fair

Treat everyone as equally as possible, regardless of the nature of the challenge they face. That doesn’t mean you should take the same approach with everyone – after all, a child may have a complex medical history that provides an exception to a rule. Rather, it means analyse every challenge carefully, give each equal weight, and once again, seek advice.

4 | Ignoring them isn’t an option

You may receive several challenges using the same letter template, but behind each one will be a family with their own deeply heartfelt concerns. They may be anxious about the pandemic and concerned about the implications of the test and trace regime. In many cases, they’ll be labouring under a misunderstanding regarding their rights and the school’s responsibilities, reinforced by inaccurate information sourced from social media that they believe to be correct.

In such cases, you must correspond. Doing so will give you the opportunity to clearly state the school’s position and clarify the facts. Once again, however, even if you’re sure of your response, seek expert advice before you respond.


Craig Stilwell is head of data services at Judicium Education – a professional services company that advises on health and safety, HR, legal services, clerking, governance and data protection; for more details, visit judiciumeducation.co.uk or follow @JudiciumEDU.

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