Camera Policy Raises Privacy and Equity Concerns

The babysitter cancelled at the last minute, so Kimberly Masaya, a junior, had to take care of her baby brother on the first day of remote classes. She wrote an email to a teacher she hadn’t met yet, asking if she could be excused from the school camera policy, which mandated that she have her camera on during class at all times. 

“I couldn’t imagine having to run after my brother, feed him, carry him or just give him the attention that he needs on camera for my whole class to see,” Masaya said, noting that her teacher did excuse her from turning on her camera that day. She wasn’t sure if others who found themselves in challenging circumstances would have the same experience though. 

In a policy developed by the Reopening Committee and the School Leadership Team, students currently must have their cameras on for remote learning over Zoom. Failure to comply could possibly result in grade deductions through participation rubrics, which vary by department. (Editor’s Note: The school stated in an email on December 3 that teachers could not dock a student’s grade for factors such as camera use, per Chancellor’s Regulations. “Where there are conflicts with pre-existing school policies, those discrepancies will be examined and revised,” said Dr. Marmor, the principal of Francis Lewis High School.)

The camera policy is an “absolute vital necessity,” Marmor said. “If we can’t communicate with each other and we don’t know what’s going on on the other side of the screen, we can’t effectively educate and expect you to really move forward with your education.”

Petition by the FLHS Student Organization

Dr. Marmor stated the rule was also the result of a petition filed by the Student Organization (S.O.), which requested the use of cameras in order to create more engagement in the remote classroom. S.O. Senior President Abby Katzap told FLHS News that she and her fellow board members wanted to focus on improving virtual learning in these unprecedented circumstances.

“In school it’s very difficult to pay attention if your camera isn’t on,” Katzap said. “I already have difficulty paying attention to online classes but I think having the camera on and knowing that I am on screen helps me engage in the lesson a little more.”

However, students like Masaya, find the mandated on-camera policy to be invasive. 

“It’s not fair to students because we don’t want to share that part of us,” Masaya said. “If someone’s home and they’re just trying to learn, making them share that side of themselves might give them anxiety or some sort of stress. It’s going to deter us from wanting to learn.”

Senior Athina Halkiadakis agreed, telling FLHS News that she feels “outraged” by the policy, especially in regards to gym classes, where students must keep their webcams on to exercise.

“Our whole participation grade is based on whether we have our camera on or not,” Halkiadakis said. “And there’s so many problems in that because not everyone has a space. Not everyone’s comfortable with classmates and teachers”

Halkiadakis believes that a physical education class is particularly stressful for students who felt insecure about showing their whole body on camera. 

“Some people can have body image issues or they’re insecure about it and the idea of them doing jumping jacks on camera,” Halkiadakis said. “I’m pretty insecure about myself.I literally left my gym class midway when my teacher said we’re going to do that stuff today. I left. I just left the class.”

Dr. Marmor stated that the school will allow for “limited exceptions” to the mandated camera policy, and that students must provide guidance counselors medical documentation explaining why they can’t be on camera. Then they.can be excused from the policy. 

“We will take it on a case by case basis,” said Dr. Marmor.

Students can also enable their virtual backgrounds to cover their surroundings, Dr. Marmor stated in response to the privacy concerns raised by students. 

“We’re not suggesting that everyone has to have an open window into their homes because the technology exists,” Dr. Marmor stated. “If anybody needs to blur out their background with a virtual background, it’s perfectly fine.” 

However, medical exemptions and utilizing virtual backgrounds is not enough to address the “major privacy issues involved” with the policy, according to Brad Shear, a lawyer who specializes in privacy issues and social media. 

“[Francis Lewis High School] cannot mandate that you have your cameras on,” Shear said. “That’s a Fourth Amendment violation. They must give the students the ability to opt out of being recorded in their own home. They must. It’s the law.”

Shear maintained that students’ Fourth Amendment privacy rights were being violated due to homes being shown on camera in a Zoom class. Anything from political signs in the background, to “parents naked” or “kids doing all sorts of weird stuff” could potentially happen in a Zoom class, and that presents major privacy concerns for the student.  

Shear also stated that a virtual background was not a valid solution to the privacy concerns.

“In order for the virtual background to work, you need a background with just one color,” Shear said. “Mine is white, so of course it will work.” Shear then pointed to one of the reporter’s background on the Zoom interview, stating that the “variety of things” in the reporter’s background made it difficult to see the student reporter, and therefore it did not work. 

“It’s an equity issue,” Shear said. “Not everyone has the most ideal circumstances where they have like no family members walking behind them or no surroundings behind them. A lot of students have problems with that.”

Dr. Marmor stated that if virtual backgrounds did not work for students, they would grant “an exception.”

“We would work with you to try to get it fixed,” Dr. Marmor said. “But what we will not do is force you to be uncomfortable.” Dr. Marmor also noted that without the on-camera policy, students could be “sleeping”, “not home”, or “playing video games” during class. 

“If we don’t know what’s going on on the other side of the screen, then we can’t effectively educate,” said Dr. Marmor. 

Leonie Haimson, the founder and Executive Director of Class Size Matters, said she took a “middle position,” with the camera policy, noting the need for teachers to measure engagement in the class while also stating that the current camera policy was “invasive.”

“There’s lots of ways to participate,” Haimson said. “You could participate orally, you can participate in the chat, you can participate by raising your hand. You can participate by doing the Google pool poll. And most importantly, you can participate by doing your homework. All those things should be counted as attending the class.”

Teachers too told FLHS News that they found fault with the policy. English teacher Mr. Felder said that he understands that one rule cannot cater to 4,500 students. 

“We, as teachers, have to be very sensitive to the fact that some kids just don’t have the luxury of having their own bedroom or having family members that actually understand that they have to keep the noise down,” Mr. Felder said. 

The protocol does not engage students, Mr. Felder added, who found ways to do other activities in class over Zoom.

“You can actually have your camera on and still be online shopping and have your phone hidden and doing all sorts of other things,” Mr. Felder said. “It just shows me that you’re staring at your computer screen, but I don’t know exactly what you’re doing.”

However some teachers said that they supported the rule, including Arthur Goldstein, an ESL teacher and UFT Chapter Leader at Francis Lewis High School.

“I am very happy that the principal insisted there are cameras,” Goldstein said. “We’re going to have better exchanges. We’re going to have more involvement. Look, this whole thing sucks. I mean, this whole pandemic and this whole not being able to be together, it’s just a tragedy. But we have to make the best we can out of it. I think we need to see each other’s faces.”

As students have now indefinitely moved into all-remote learning, the divide over the mandated camera policy still appears split among teachers and students at Francis Lewis High School. As for Masaya, she still feels strongly as ever about her stance on the issue, even though she initially supported the camera policy in the late spring of 2020. 

“I did believe that this petition offered solutions to many irregularities we faced during the spring semester,” Masaya said. “However, as soon as the beginning of what would become the current camera policy was discussed I immediately contested the idea,” she added, noting that issues of equity and privilege made change her mind about the camera policy. 

“They want that sense of community and that sense of face-to-face normality, but it really just leaves out a huge population of our school that already goes unacknowledged,” said Masaya. “If [students] don’t want to share, they shouldn’t have to. Consider who you’re benefiting and who you’re harming in these situations, because I promise you the benefits are not greater than the advantages.”