To have your camera on or off?

That is the question


Photo Katherine Wistner

Screenshot of English class Google Meet

Adapting to online school has been challenging for students and teachers alike as they attempt to navigate the new way of learning and establish new expectations. But what do those expectations entail and are students and teachers meeting them?

At the start of virtual school, no one was quite sure what to expect. Initially, the administration was preparing for two weeks of online school, not ten. “It takes patience and cooperation from all parties, the teachers and the students; you can’t get frustrated. I knew it could work, it was just a question of adapting to a [new] school environment,” said Social Studies Teacher Cathleen Cronin. 

In order to adapt to this new school environment, expectations needed to be set. However, what those expectations are remained questionable. 

Since everyone is working from home now, each person’s learning environment looks a little different. The development of this new environment has created its fair share of challenges, such as whether students should be required to have their cameras and microphones on during class.

“I don’t want to force a kid to [turn their camera on], that’s not my place,” said Social Studies Teacher Brett Curtis. “It’s frustrating because, in a perfect world, I’d like to see everybody’s faces and see what they’re doing.” 

Cronin shares this same frustration regarding her American Studies class. “The class was so heavily discussion-based… we really allowed the discussion to kind of show us where the class was going to go and build off of that,” said Cronin. “It’s hard to have a discussion with 40 people when you can see their camera off and all you’re talking to is a screen.”

For many students, the thought of having a camera show their face is not very appealing. Freshman Quetzal Araya said he keeps his camera off if he can because he doesn’t know if he looks funny and finds it weird to be laying in bed during school. This seems to be the case for a lot of students regarding their live classes.

Senior Emma Wojcik said, “Online classes are obviously not the same as being face to face, especially when everyone’s camera is off and muted. The teacher will try to make small talk and nobody will respond, so it’s not the same vibe as being in the classroom.” 

These issues have led teachers to make some creative decisions and set certain ground rules to adapt to their virtual classroom. For example, some teachers believe that it is necessary for students to have their cameras on in order to have a productive class period.

I think that we are all learning the nuances of virtual etiquette as the whole world has moved to online learning and working.”

— WHS Principal Mary Asfendis

“If the student has his or her camera off, it’s like walking into the classroom and teaching [students] with their head down on the desk,” said Health Teacher Susan Kolesar. “It’s really frustrating to look at the top of a kid’s head or just a hoodie or, you know, the ceiling. It’s not respectful, and I know that they might not intend for that, but it is disrespectful.”

Although not everyone agrees with this notion, keeping cameras on during virtual school may be useful when trying to keep or show a student’s focus. 

“I feel like I have to pay more attention when my camera is on, the teacher could just look at me and I could just be on my phone. When my microphone is on I feel like I have to pay attention because I can’t mumble something under my breath,” said Araya.

It seems that while every teacher has the same goals, many teachers have different approaches to online schooling. Some teachers utilize both of their class sessions for the week to host a live class, while others send out independent work for their students to do. Kolesar said she found that a mix of online classes and independent work is generally the most effective way of reaching her students.

“Each subject and class activity have different norms and needs and one singular view of online interaction may not work for all classes,” said Principal Mary Asfendis. “I think that we are all learning the nuances of virtual etiquette as the whole world has moved to online learning and working.”

No matter what people’s opinions are regarding online school etiquette, everyone can agree that this way of learning is very different than actually going to school and being in a classroom. Communicating through a screen can sometimes put up a barrier between the teacher and students that is hard to overcome. Because of this, having students present and pay attention is now as much of a goal as grades and learning expectations. 

“I definitely interact with my teachers much less than I normally would in the classroom,” said junior Emma Sugrue. “Usually in class I participate a lot more. With online learning I don’t participate a lot and I usually don’t even have my mic on.”

This new dynamic of what an online “classroom” should look like has come with its obstacles; however it is safe to say that all parties are putting forth their best efforts to create a constructive learning environment. 

 “I feel like we have asked [students] to completely change something that has been [their] routine since kindergarten… [students] are stepping up and handling it in a really mature way,” said Cronin. “That is to be applauded.” 

With this abrupt change to learning, teachers have had to be extra creative. “So many teachers are doing very cool things where they’re just trying to keep [students] interested,” said Social Studies Teacher Kimberly Leegan. “We ended up scheduling a virtual Law Day… where we combined my mock trial class as well as some of Mr. Basos AP Gov classes,” Leegan said. Leegan has invited guest speakers to her zoom lessons and also plans to hold a virtual mock trial, involving Roosevelt Middle School students as the jury.

Despite the obvious differences and challenges that come with online school, Asfendis said, “The process has improved as we have continued with distance learning.” But, virtual school etiquette still remains a topic of discussion among students and teachers since learning has entered new, unchartered territory.