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Attending virtual school: Should cameras be on or off for remote learners?

“They’re Zoom and meeting fatigued, just like everyone else,” a teacher says on why she allows her students to keep their cameras off during remote classes.

Angel Santiago virtually teaches a language arts lesson to a class of fifth-graders at Loring Flemming Elementary in Blackwood.
Angel Santiago virtually teaches a language arts lesson to a class of fifth-graders at Loring Flemming Elementary in Blackwood.Read moreTim Tai / File Photograph

English literature teacher Kimberly Dickstein Hughes could sense that her virtual class needed a break. So she told the students to turn off their cameras and complete their reading assignment privately.

The seniors in her Greek Drama class at Haddonfield Memorial High School appeared tired, a little overworked, and not overly enthused about another remote lesson. She gave them a virtual hug and allowed them to find a comfortable spot at home to read. The only requirement was to send her a selfie as their attendance at the end of the day.

“I simply don’t think it’s necessary to have the camera on at all times. We all need a break from cameras and screens,” said Hughes.

With most districts across the region offering hybrid or fully remote instruction because of the coronavirus, the issue of whether students should be required to turn on their cameras has become a thorny one here and around the country. Some districts make it mandatory, while others leave the decision to teachers or students.

For Xavier Alexander, a senior at Williamstown High School in Monroe Township, keeping his camera on shows his teachers he is paying attention. It also connects him to his teachers and classmates he hasn’t met because his Gloucester County district has been fully remote since September.

“I guess you have to be comfortable being uncomfortable,” said Alexander, who hopes to major in sports medicine at Howard University. “It comes down to just doing your schoolwork.”

A recent study by the Education Week Center found that more than three-fourths of teachers said their students must keep their cameras on during live remote instruction. They believe that face-to-face contact keeps students engaged, helps them discern whether students understand the lesson, and prevents cheating.

Critics, however, say the mandate raises privacy and social issues. Some students are uncomfortable showing inside their home environment or have self-esteem issues that make them reluctant to be on camera, experts say. Others may share a learning space with siblings or parents working in the background that makes it difficult to turn on the camera or microphone.

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“We just have to ask ourselves are there times we wouldn’t want to have our cameras on? Absolutely,” says Jeremy Glazer, an assistant professor in the department of language, literacy, & sociocultural education at Rowan University. “It has some real drawbacks.”

Teachers say the cameras sometimes offer an unwanted view inside their students’ lives, such as pupils in their pajamas logging on from their bedrooms, or eating and drinking — things they wouldn’t do in class. One teacher recalled the day one of her students fell asleep and could be heard loudly snoring.

Because there is no state mandate, it is left to districts to decide how to handle cameras. Some, like Cherry Hill, have strongly recommended that students turn on their cameras and microphones during class, but few make it mandatory. Philadelphia leaves the decision up to schools and teachers.

The debate likely will continue until COVID-19 cases wane and schools can fully reopen.

At Overbrook High School, Spanish teacher Angelique Hilton only requires her students to turn on their cameras during tests. She uses a virtual background at her teaching station to protect her privacy.

“They already have enough distractions,” said Hilton, who teaches six classes a day for the West Philadelphia school. “They’re Zoom- and meeting-fatigued, just like everyone else,” she said.

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In West Deptford, students are required to be on camera during live instruction, said Superintendent Greg Cappello. Students are reminded that they are ”in school” when they are on camera and must follow the dress code, which bars shirts with offensive language, he said.

“We want to make sure that they’re there, participating and a part of the learning,” Cappello said.

Millville public schools recently began requiring students to turn on their cameras and the response has been positive, with about 95% participation, said Assistant Superintendent Pamela Moore. Previously, some students would turn on the camera and walk away, she said.

In its list of guidelines, Cherry Hill asks students to dress appropriately, sit still in one spot during live classes, and have their camera on. The rules advise students to make sure their parents and pets are aware when class is in session to avoid disruptions.

There are other ways to engage students, besides cameras, such as private chats and conversations off-line, said Angelo Santiago, a teacher at Loring Flemming Elementary School in Blackwood. As long as students respond verbally, he marks them as present.

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“Obviously, I let them know there is no judgment here. It’s a safe zone,” Santiago said.

Some educators say the biggest challenge may be simply getting students to log in virtually and then finding ways to engage them. Some students are simply skipping class.

Rachel Clancy, a special-education teacher with the Camden County Educational Services Commission, said: “I feel if I push too hard they’re not going to show up, and that doesn’t benefit any of us.”

Jordan Hawkins, 17, a senior at the Charles Brimm Medical Arts High School in Camden, said she doesn’t mind turning on her camera, as long as her hair looks pretty. Until recently, she didn’t have a laptop and used a cell phone to log in to class and was unable to get on camera. The district doesn’t require cameras, said Superintendent Katrina McCombs.

“It is already hard enough to do the virtual lesson,” said Hawkins. “So I feel like as long as the work is done it shouldn’t be an issue. I just wish things could go back to the way they were. We all miss school.”

Staff writer Kristen A. Graham contributed to this article.