camera lens

Let’s Look at the Camera Debate Through the Lens of Equity

Early in the school shutdown last spring,  I received an email from Sara, a student in my senior class: “Mrs. Thyer, I’m so sorry I missed our class Zoom again. I promise I’m taking this class seriously and am still doing the readings and working on our project. Elearning at home is just really, really hard for me right now.” 

After a few more email exchanges, I began to understand what she meant by “hard.” Sara lived in a small, two-bedroom apartment with her parents and three other siblings making it difficult to find a quiet space to work or Zoom in when she wasn’t busy working or helping her younger sisters with their eLearning. It wasn’t that she didn’t want to be a part of our class Zooms on camera, it was that she couldn’t be. Sara’s situation is by no means unique and should give educators and policymakers pause to ask: should student accountability for remote learning be tied to requiring them to be on camera? I would argue, no. We owe it to students like Sarah to offer better, more creative, and more inclusive answers to hold them accountable for their learning than mandating camera use. 

After the Illinois State Board of Education prioritized a “do no harm” approach to student accountability in its spring remote learning recommendations, many school districts faced public outcries for more student accountability as they regained local control over their remote learning plans. While this push in light of learning loss concerns is understandable, the answer offered by many districts was to mandate remote student camera use. In some cases, districts went so far as to institute stringent online learning dress codes, often tying these mandates to punitive consequences. 

Such policies rest on the faulty assumption that all students have a safe, conducive environment to learn from and ignore disparities in resources that have only worsened as the pandemic continues to wreak economic, physical, and psychological damage on our communities. The policies also often set up an adversarial teacher-student relationship that prizes compliance over inclusion and punitive consequences over restorative and responsive classroom management, ultimately leading to further disengagement from the students we as teachers know we need to reach the most. 

Teachers Need Support from School and District Leaders to Go Camera-Free

As educators, we are well aware of the outsize role that our students’ home environments play in their learning and understand the importance of creating inclusive and safe classroom spaces. We cannot put this understanding on hold in digital classrooms. With the recent release of Illinois’ State Board of Education’s 2020-2023 strategic plan that justly centers on equity, it is vital to remember that all education stakeholders have a responsibility for equitable practices. Teachers need the support of their administrations and local policymakers to support our students in the digital setting, whether that means allowing different, camera-free ways for students to participate in class, building flexibility into more rigid synchronous schedules, or supporting creative ways to differentiate digital instruction and assessment. 

I have such support in my own school. Despite an initial camera mandate communicated to families in my district, we were quick to recognize our community’s many struggles, offering students exceptions and teachers the flexibility to determine camera policies that work best for their digital classrooms. In my classroom, camera use is optional. While my school’s approach is a step in the right direction, the responsibility should not fall on teachers alone. Teachers not only need the backing of flexible and inclusive policies, but we also need expert training and professional development to make these policies effective in our digital and hybrid classrooms. Supportive, creative, and inclusive practices should not be the exception, they should be the policy. 

Some days I look at my screen of black boxes and profile pictures and worry that I’m not doing enough to keep my students’ focus, but most days I remember Sara. She graduated in the spring and we still keep in touch. She is loving her college experience and the flexibility her remote college schedule provides that allows her to better balance the demands of academics and her responsibilities at home. Just as teachers are finding ways to readjust and rebalance to meet the needs of our students, I hope that policymakers see it as their responsibility to do the same and work to see accountability from a new lens, one that doesn’t need to be attached to a camera. 

Lisa Thyer teaches English at Amos Alonzo Stagg High School in Palos Hills, Illinois. She is a 2020-2021 Teach Plus Illinois Policy Fellow.  

Photo by Ross Sneddon on Unsplash.

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Lisa Thyer

Lisa Thyer teaches English at Amos Alonzo Stagg High School in Palos Hills, Illinois. She is a 2020-2021 Teach Plus Illinois Policy Fellow.

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