When it Comes to Cameras in Virtual Classrooms, Compromise Over Compliance

For me, my home is a sacred place; not only because I am a person of faith but also because my home is an intimate and safe space where my relationships, culture and humanity is nurtured, affirmed and celebrated. I like to believe that my wife and children think the same thing.

Generally speaking, I never invite strangers into my home, but there are times when doing so was necessary. Usually, those times involved a broken appliance that needed to either be repaired or delivered. What is important to note is that I had to invite them to my home; they couldn’t come in without my permission. However, due to the Coronavirus pandemic, my children’s classmates and teachers are guests in my home each day via classroom zoom meetings… and I didn’t invite them.

The pandemic has pushed educators and families to innovate and adapt; this includes turning homes into educational spaces for remote or hybrid synchronous learning. Whether teachers are using zoom or google classroom, video conferencing is the new classroom and many districts require that students keep their cameras on. This means that classmates and teachers have a window into your home.

As I said earlier, I don’t invite everyone into my home. Yet my wife and I have agreed to the reality of uninvited guest for the sake of our children’s safety. Their cameras are on; it is the policy of the school district that they’re in.

According to an Education Week national survey, 77% of educators surveyed said that if students have working cameras on their devices, they must keep them on during class. It’s convenient to say so if you’re district provided students with devices with cameras.

We’ve worked with intention to create spaces for our 3rd grade, kindergartener and preschooler to feel comfortable and productive while on a zoom call, while at the same time maintaining the best level of privacy we can.

There is an argument to be made for students keeping their cameras on. With the absence of in-person learning, maintaining connections and fostering community are important and the ability to see everyone helps. On cameras also help maintain student accountability. Teachers can identify students easier and live cameras assist with students establishing a presence within the class and helps to simulate an in-person learning experience.

… And will there be some students who’ll get distracted or fail to pay attention with an off camera, sure. It happens during in-person learning. With that said, live cameras present real challenges for families.

For some, the camera being on is a violation of privacy. It is honestly no one’s business to know what is going on in your home and it’s unsettling to parents to consider that teachers (and administrators) can do Intel on your family and your home while on a video conference call.

Depending on the state of the home environment for students and parents, they may not want people to see their homes for fear of judgment; their home environment could be a source of anxiety for them. There is also an equity concern. The financial limitations of a household means that a zoom call may have to be a call-in versus a video conference due to a lack of internet access or low bandwidth speed.

Maybe, a student is multitasking while learning; they could be assisting a younger sibling or babysitting a younger sibling because their daycare is closed due to the Coronavirus. Maybe simply looking at your face with everyone else’s face is draining; it is draining for adults. Maybe, a student is homeless and desires to keep that information confidential.

What doesn’t help foster the community schools seek to gain with live cameras are punitive measures such as being marked absent or receiving a lower grade or even calling child services on parents for a child’s failure to appear on a zoom call. These actions harm students, particularly Black and Latinx students who are already harmed disproportionately by discipline measures in schools.

The same Education Week survey found that school districts with larger percentages of students of color have stricter policies than majority-white districts. According to the survey, cameras are required—no exceptions allowed—by 15 percent of educators in districts where 80 percent or more of the students are white, compared with 31 percent of their colleagues in districts where the share of white students is 30 percent or less.

Thankfully, there a happy medium where community can be fostered while privacy is protected and it starts with educators respecting the humanity of the students and families they serve.

Education is a humanizing endeavor; the role of the educator is to assist in the humanization of their students. That does not mean presuming their way is the only way because it is the right way but rather school and district leaders must engage in what Paulo Freire called revolutionary leadership. That is a co-laboring between educators and their constituency that learns and implements lessons together that builds on the culture and experiences of families to collaborate on how to live a life of hybrid and remote learning.  

Educators mustn’t forget that the same technological tools that brought us to this space are the same tools that will help us navigate within it. Turned off cameras certainly don’t mean that you can’t have class. The Education Week survey sheds light on inequities that should encourage educators to considered allowing students to keep their cameras off. Even principal Baruti Kafele changed his stance because of his concern about how the inequities could potentially play out.

There are tools at your disposal to utilize that’ll foster greater community. You can utilize the chat by asking questions and/or require that students respond to something you say with an emoji reaction. You can also use polling tools to gather consensus or even utilize breakout rooms where students maybe more willing to offer camera access (use breakout rooms wisely). There are even games you can play with students while on a zoom call whereby you can test their knowledge on a lesson.

The biggest of compromises is require that students have on their cameras while allowing them to use a virtual background. They’re available for zoom, google classroom and webex.

Now is not the time for more shaming, more punishing and more unreasonableness. More than ever, educators must approach teaching and learning with compassion and common sense. If the goal is for students to learn, then allow them to learn as best possible. An off camera shouldn’t get in the way of students learning; nor should educators without imagination.


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