Great Debate: Should Cameras be required to be on?

December 4, 2020

We are 1/3 of the way into the school year. School this year has been utterly devastated and changed by the pandemic, and with these changes arise new issues. One of these contemporary and debated topics involves cameras during online meeting services like Zoom. This Great Debate underlines the benefits of both sides of this heated, concurrent, and important argument.

Cameras On: Keeping it Face to Face

Teachers have pursued their passions because they love interacting with children. They live for the moments when a student’s eyes light up with pride and joy. They work towards shaping the minds of young children and leading them to greatness. They strive to inspire. 

Mr. Kaplan, BHS history teacher, shares “it is an opportunity to make connections not only with your peers, but with your teachers who care about you. It is such a meaningful experience, and it is a huge part of why I love my job so much.” 

Yet, none of this can happen the way it is supposed to amidst a global pandemic. Due to COVID-19, our school is currently all virtual, which means teachers cannot do the one thing they love the most. A recent issue that has surfaced due to virtual schooling is students’ tendency to keep their cameras turned off all class period. 

Hybrid schedules are already difficult the way they are. As a student, turning off your camera can only be detrimental. Not having any expectations to meet leads to a tendency to slack off. When students turn their cameras off, no one is watching them, so naturally it is much easier to get distracted. 70.2% of twenty two teachers surveyed agree that it would be fair to mark students absent for having their cameras off and microphones muted the entirety of class. It is very common for students to use their phones and play videogames with their cameras turned off. They are able to do as they please when they can easily hide behind a screen with no supervision. 

Mrs. Reitz, a history teacher at Bernards High School, shares how “they stay focused on the screen and engage with me more. I also believe that if your camera is on, it forces students to pay attention more naturally, so it is a good “study skill” honestly.”   

Keeping your camera on replicates the most accurate learning experience that students have had in previous in-person years. With all these new adjustments and guidelines, it is difficult to keep the normality of school. Enforcing the habit of keeping cameras on all the time can only benefit students. They will grasp concepts easier, and their teachers can be more helpful. 

Mr. Kaplan highlights the teachers’ daily struggles: “Without being able to see my students’ faces, it can be really hard for me to tell if my lesson is landing.” 

Teachers shape their lessons around their students’ reactions and facial expressions. They are able to tell when a student needs further instructional support purely based on a students attitude and reaction. When teachers are talking to black screens, it is impossible for them to know whether they need to adjust their teaching styles.

Not only does this habit have a severely negative impact on students, but it also is insensitive and disrespectful towards the teachers. 78.4% of teachers surveyed admit that it is immensely more difficult to teach when the majority of their students turn their cameras off. This adjustment has been difficult for everyone, especially teachers. They created a life in this profession because they truly care about making a difference in their students’ lives. They chose to become teachers so they could create real and meaningful relationships with their students, but when they cannot meet in person, it is extremely difficult to have the same relationships. 

English teacher, Mrs. Snyder, explains how greatly she has been affected by this upsetting decision; “My relationships with this year’s students aren’t nearly what they used to be. There is SO MUCH MORE to teaching than the content of our classes, and when cameras are off and mics are muted, I can’t be the teacher I want to be.” 

Regardless of if students believe it is more convenient for them to turn their cameras off, they are not thinking of the effects their actions have on those who care about them most. Mrs. Reitz admits the frustration and sadness she feels when she cannot have the real teaching experience; “Then to sign on during class time and just see black screens it feels like no one cares. It makes me question why am I running myself into the ground if no one can even be bothered to turn a camera on to engage with me.” 

Encouraging students to turn their cameras on is not a way for teachers to watch over their students like hawks. While it is a teachers responsibility to ensure that their students are understanding new material, teachers like Mr. Kaplan simply want to give their students the best experience possible. He explains how “it feels awkward making silly jokes into a black void of nothingness.” For a teacher like Mr. Kaplan, who lives for making his classroom truly enjoyable and safe along with creating meaningful relationships with his students, it is deeply upsetting to go through an entire school day without seeing all of his students faces. 89.5% of surveyed teachers agree that discussions would improve greatly if cameras were on. 

“There were silly inside jokes that popped up organically, goofy moments during simulations, and real “a-ha!” moments during lessons. All of that is hard to re-capture in this setting when the conversation is between one man and 20 black boxes.” Under such strange and sudden circumstances, the smartest and kindest choice that students can make is to keep their cameras on for Zoom calls. 


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Great Debate: Cameras Off

You roll out of bed. Your hair is a mess, you look terrible, you feel tired. 

“Cameras on!” are not the two words you want to hear. 

Students at the high school are against cameras, according to an independent survey from the Crimson. While students do not look disheveled all day, this anti-camera sentiment remains true for even the times when students are alert, awake, and looking their best. These feelings against cameras are rooted in the opinions of high school during the pandemic and reflected throughout the student population. 

Cameras should not be required for a host of reasons, some of which are out of student control – which the school policy recognizes – while other ethical reasons come into play.

Dr. Neigel explains the high school’s camera policy is to “encourage” students to have their cameras on, but the administration recognizes that a number of students’ “home learning environments” make it difficult or impossible for them to show themselves or their surroundings. For example, a student who has multiple siblings on online meetings simultaneously in the same room would be put in a difficult situation if all were required to have their cameras on, and the result of this would be less concentration and more concern about surroundings.

This seems like a beneficial policy to adopt and use, as forcing students’ cameras ‘on’ would seem like a privacy issue, as students are in their own homes. As long as students participate to satisfy the teacher, they should not have to be spied upon in the safety of their own bedroom or basement.

Another interesting point against the eye of the computers comes from the voices of students themselves. The overwhelming majority of respondents to a survey from The Crimson – roughly 85% of students, representative of the entire student body – professed that they learn the same or better with their cameras off compared to the opposite.

A similar result was derived from a question regarding the practicality of cameras being on. An astounding 82% of students found that cameras being on is not practical all the time during class time. This could be due to teachers giving students time to work alone on assignments during class or during a lesson in which students are taking notes. Either way, the consensus remains that it is impractical for cameras to be required on. 

One can make the point that students focus less and act more passively in class without cameras. This point is addressed by Dr. Neigel, as he explains the camera policy further. He went on to say that as long as students are actively participating and “engaged in the lesson,” it is acceptable to not have cameras on. 

This counterargument was raised in a question in the survey, too. Only about ⅓ of students felt that they are more focused with cameras off. This could lead to “zoning out” and student disengagement.  On this, teachers have made note of students who are unresponsive and passive throughout class with their cameras not on. Students need to understand that to keep their cameras off, they need to participate. 

Another important counterargument made by many teachers in a different survey from The Crimson was the social aspect of school and teaching. Teachers argued that “reading the room” was of the utmost importance in the task of helping students comprehend a foreign concept. Teachers argued that getting reactions during in-person class is important because it gives the teacher a gauge of the students’ understanding. As a result, the participation mentioned above includes reactions, which are a crucial part in teaching, according to high school teachers.

On the other hand, those students who are passive online would have been passive during class if it was in-person, and no teacher would have complained. Students who are not sure of an answer or just do not want to speak up in front of the class will be passive regardless of their means of schooling. This poses a very particular and messy situation in which teachers need to find ways for introverted students to participate with their cameras off in dramatically different lessons than teachers are used to. 

The administration cannot violate a student’s privacy and force them to have their camera on. However, many teachers have turned to an attendance-like participation grade for each class to combat any passive or zoned out students. This method would also hurt naturally shy students, too, though. Teachers have found ways around this by using software and websites like Padlet and Google Jamboards. 

In short, barring insignificant lack of focus, the positives and easements that come from cameras not being forced ‘on’ prove that giving students this one simple freedom in this strange time would prove to be beneficial for everyone involved. This simple freedom in this complex time gives students one more thing that they can manipulate in a world in which most things are out of their control; the choice given to students is what is important, as it is the basis of the issue. Students – and most teens in general – like having a choice in a year in which many of their options have been revoked.


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