As school districts across California move forward with distance learning, many are navigating the complicated realities of this year’s essential back-to-school item: webcams.

California state law requires students to interact with their peers and teachers every day during distance learning. Fostering those connections can be difficult without seeing faces, teachers and administrators say, but requiring cameras to stay on during class can be difficult for students who lack a stable internet connection or feel anxious on screen.

Some districts, like Lakeside Union in San Diego County, require students to keep their video on during class. In a distance learning environment where teachers and students can’t be in the same location, maintaining face-to-face contact is critical to keeping students connected to their teachers and other students, said Superintendent Andy Johnsen.

“It’s about engagement for us,” Johnsen said. “I’m really worried about the toll this is taking on our kids, so we want to make sure we can see them, and they can see their classmates and teachers.”

Whether a district wants to set rules around camera use is a local decision, and the state does not have any official guidance on whether cameras should be on or off during class, said Cynthia Butler, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Education.

Hunter Valdez, a senior at James Lick High School in San Jose, said nearly all of his teachers allow students to choose whether they want to keep their cameras and microphones on during class. He likes the policy because he doesn’t feel comfortable sharing his bedroom on screen.

‘An added sense of privacy’ with camera off

“My room is my private space. I don’t like having my camera on and people being able to look at it and judge my posters or how messy or clean it is. It weirds me out,” Valdez said. “Being able to have my camera turned off gives an added sense of privacy.”

In many districts, students are expected to appear on screen but won’t face harsh consequences if their cameras are off, especially if it is due to spotty internet or other issues at home preventing them from appearing on screen.

When students’ webcams are off, it can be difficult to know if they are confused, bored, excited, or in need of anything at home, said Morelia Rivas, a fourth-grade teacher at Manzanita SEED in Oakland Unified.

“It creates an additional step to assessing engagement that becomes more challenging,” she said. “You need to keep a list of who isn’t using the camera and if they are turning in assignments and asking questions.”

Even Valdez admits that it’s harder for him to pay attention when his camera or his teacher’s camera is off.

“As much as I don’t like having the camera on, no one can see if I’m on my phone or if I’m distracted when it’s off,” he said, adding that he is more likely to turn the camera on when it’s with a teacher he has a good relationship with.

Webcam anxieties

Webcam anxieties may also stem from fears over discipline and invasion of privacy. Schools are increasingly adopting technologies that rely on camera surveillance to monitor students, such as remote proctoring tools, and other apps that can track location, device usage and other web-browsing data.

Students’ names and images, which appear in virtual classroom settings, are considered personally identifiable and subject to protections under the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. The law applies to all publicly funded schools and gives parents the right to access their student’s education records and to request changes to those records if they contain an error.

Many privacy experts caution against jumping on board with video conferencing tools before thoroughly vetting their security and privacy settings first.

“A lot of these technologies are being rolled out very quickly with little opportunity for parents or students to opt out of even consent,” said Lindsay Oliver, activism project manager at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a national nonprofit that researches and advocates for digital privacy. “It’s COVID times, and administrators have to make decisions quickly. But I’m concerned about how quickly it’s happening and whether due diligence is being followed.”

There are many scenarios where a student’s privacy could be compromised in an online class setting, Oliver said: “Maybe you ask a question that someone finds silly and takes a video of you and that gets posted online to social media. That’s not being hacked, but that is a way that your privacy could be invaded.”

The Electronic Frontier Foundation recently created a guide for students to better understand how educational apps can track their data, and what students can do to protect their privacy.

This fall, most of Rivas’ students keep their cameras on during class meetings. But when classes moved online in the spring, some kept cameras off due to anxiety about being on screen or revealing too much about their home life.

“Kids are also really curious about each other. To have other kids wanting to see your new environment and be all up in your business, that’s a lot of pressure,” Rivas said.

“I remember when I was 7 and having a very clear idea about what the differences were between myself and my peers. And those differences are very material, like what shoes you have on,” she added. “Students who don’t have those things are the ones most keenly aware of those differences.”

Keeping cameras on won’t guarantee that students stay engaged. And Rivas said some students actually seem to participate more via chats and off-camera assignments or check-ins, even with their cameras off.

‘Keeping students comfortable’

“The tension here is keeping students comfortable and confident to choose the mode of expression they want while still allowing personality and personal touch to come through,” said Josh Weiss, an educational technology specialist at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education. “The camera doesn’t have to be on for that, but there does have to be extra effort.”

Seeing someone’s face is only one component of academic engagement, according to Shawn Kim, director of Digital Learning Initiatives at Stanford’s Graduate School of Education. The learning material itself, how it’s presented and what’s happening at home are a few other contributing factors.

Kim recommends trying different styles to check if students are paying attention, like using polls during class, interactive whiteboards or reaction buttons like a thumbs-up.

“Zoom fatigue is real. You’re continuously staring at yourself and someone else’s face. When you’re in a classroom, you have peripheral vision and can look around,” said Kim, who along with Weiss has been researching teachers’ experience with distance learning during the coronavirus pandemic. “In Zoom, it’s like sharing your personal space with 50 people.”

To connect with kids who don’t show up to class or turn their camera on, Rivas, the fourth-grade teacher in Oakland, is doing virtual home visits, meaning a video call with parents to check in and find out why a student was absent or kept the camera off.

“If I’m not seeing the student and not seeing the family,” she said, “there’s something I need to work on here.”

In many districts, such as Clovis Unified in Fresno County, students are expected to keep their cameras on during class, but exceptions can be made for students whose families may not want their child on screen.

“We recognize there are challenges for some students. If there is a compelling need not to be on camera, we will have that conversation,” said Kelly Avants, spokeswoman for Clovis Unified. “But the expectation will be to have kids be on screen. It also allows us to keep track of if that’s really the student on the other side.”

Virtual backgrounds

To help students who feel uneasy about sharing their home workspace, the district created images with school mascots and logos that students can use as a backdrop during live lessons.

Valdez, the student in San Jose, said he uses a virtual background when he does use the camera in class and that it helps him feel more comfortable appearing on screen. But backgrounds on video conferencing platforms such as Zoom are not compatible with all devices, limiting that solution for some students.

In South San Francisco Unified, students are also expected to keep their cameras on during distance learning, but district officials said students are not required to do so. The district has set up an opt-out form for families who do not want their child to participate in educational activities online that may be recorded.

Few parents have chosen to opt out so far, said Peter Feng, a spokesman for the district.

This back-to-school season is a critical time for building comfort with students online, said Weiss, the educational technology specialist at Stanford. His advice? Address students’ concerns and preconceived ideas about cameras and online education at the start.

“A lot of engagement is going to involve getting past the biases of what students think online learning could be,” Weiss said. “A lot of teachers bring out their best lesson plans that first week of school to show how exciting learning can be. Why not use that same pattern in the online learning space?”

Story originally published by EdSource.