Sign up to receive a newsletter for “The Great Divide,” an investigative series that explores educational inequality in Boston and statewide. And please reach out to us at email@example.com with story ideas and tips.
Like many students forced to attend school remotely this fall, Adriana Cepeda had no calm, quiet space at home for logging on to classes. Other household members showed up frequently on camera, and it was often loud enough to be distracting.
So the teenager — a junior at Boston Latin Academy — started logging in from a nearby Boys and Girls Club instead. It helped her focus, but it also made her feel exposed: Would her classmates wonder what was wrong at home?
To solve her problem and put her mind at ease, Cepeda opted to turn off her camera. Until, that is, her school adopted a new policy last month, allowing teachers to lower students’ grades if they fail to keep their laptop cameras on.
Driven by the belief that students get more out of remote learning when they stay on camera, the change has elicited criticism from some of the school’s 1,800 students. And it has revealed layers of nuance surrounding a seemingly simple decision, made with one click of a mouse on a tiny, camera-shaped icon.
At this diverse public school, where equity looms large, some students fear the new policy puts a heavier burden on low-income students, who are more likely to live in small, crowded homes with unreliable Internet service.
“Forcing cameras to be on when students are uncomfortable is not fair or efficient for learning,” Cepeda wrote in an e-mail. “If you want to know that a student is paying attention, call on them. If they don’t answer, take points off.”
Schools across the country weighed the risks and benefits of camera mandates in the fall, and most enacted some kind of requirement. A national survey of 790 educators in grades K-12, conducted by the Education Week Research Center in October, found more than three-quarters, 77 percent, require cameras to be on in their classes. Nearly 20 percent said they make no exceptions.
That raises concern for equity specialists, who urge empathy and deeper thinking about consequences.
“Socioeconomic challenges often bring about shame for students and their families,” said Jen Cort, a consultant to schools on educational equity. “Those who spend energy worrying about being exposed in a negative way have less energy to spend on the same [academic] tasks.”
In Boston, where the district left decisions up to schools, few have strict camera rules. The exceptions are the city’s three exam schools, known for their selectivity and rigor. Boston Latin School required cameras when the school year started in September. The others — Boston Latin Academy and the John D. O’Bryant School of Mathematics and Science — moved more slowly, enacting policies in late November and December. All three allow families to request a waiver.
Demographics at the three schools differ: Just 19 percent of students are economically disadvantaged at Boston Latin School, compared to 36 percent at Boston Latin Academy and 51 percent at the O’Bryant, according to state data. Citywide, 63 percent of students are lower-income.
At 143-year-old Latin Academy, interim head of school Gerald Howland said he felt strongly about cameras after teaching a summer class on Zoom. He required students to appear on camera, and found it essential.
“I could see every face, and I knew when they had questions before they spoke,” he said. “It would have been very difficult with blank screens.”
For months this fall, teachers and administrators tried, with minimal success, to coax students into voluntary camera use. Meanwhile pressure was mounting from parents, many of whom lobbied for a mandate, Howland said. Some were preoccupied with academic rigor. But others just wanted their children to see groups of peers online, at a time when young people have been isolated.
Still, some students felt punished by the change. When online school is already painful, they ask, why make it even less comfortable for some?
“It’s frustrating, and I think it’s exposing disrespect for students and their feedback,” said Antigone Brandel, a junior at the school who has not always felt at ease on camera. “I absolutely understand wanting to encourage students to be on camera — but I absolutely don’t think the school should allow teachers to penalize students who choose not to.”
Districts say their stance is still evolving as they navigate questions of equity — and high stakes that few anticipated.
Fall River began the school year with no camera mandate. But it changed course after the tragic death of an autistic 14-year-old student who starved to death in his father’s care in October, his condition unseen by his online teachers. Students there must now turn cameras on for a part of each class.
Other districts, including Brockton, stepped up enforcement of their camera policies after the death.
And a few schools have faced stark reminders of the risks of having cameras on, as in Taunton, where an older student exposed himself to an online class of second-graders in September.
At Boston Latin Academy, students say the ongoing toll of the pandemic — including sickness, rampant unemployment, and loss of child care — calls for unusual sensitivity.
“COVID has bombarded my peers with hardships, and people don’t always want to tell teachers personal things in their lives,” said Yorlenis DeJesus Olivero, a senior. “There’s a lot going on to have a requirement.”
Camera policies differ among the three exam schools. At the O’Bryant, camera use is not factored into grades, and all waiver requests are automatically granted. About 10 percent of the school’s 1,600 students have been exempted, head of school Tanya Freeman-Wisdom said.
At Boston Latin Academy, only about 50 students, or 3 percent of those enrolled, have asked for waivers, a rate administrators cite as evidence that most students are comfortable with the policy.
But some may never request an exemption. Adriana Cepeda, the student who sought quiet at the Boys and Girls Club, said she did not seek a waiver because her family did not think it was necessary. Other students fear their reasons would be deemed inadequate.
“I have heard students worrying, ‘Is my anxiety or my exhaustion at being on camera all day a real enough reason?’ ” said Antigone Brandel. The junior has several reasons for staying off camera, including Zoom fatigue, concern for peers with less space and privilege, and unpleasant experiences being misgendered by teachers.
For some, a waiver can add anxiety.
“If you have your camera off, and everyone knows you have a waiver, then maybe they’re wondering what’s wrong with you,” said DeJesus Olivero. “That can be really distracting, especially for teenagers.”
Students offered dozens of reasons why their classmates might prefer to stay off-camera. In large housing complexes with unstable Internet, camera use can degrade audio quality. A student might be a victim of cyberbullying who fears online mockery. Some teenagers find it awkward and distracting to see themselves onscreen, or they dread being teased about a messy home.
Howland, the head of school at Latin Academy, said the school’s policies allow for flexibility. Any student can e-mail their teacher and ask to keep their camera off on a given day. And waivers have been granted for all kinds of reasons. “We want kids who need it to request it,” he said.
Meanwhile, some have felt real benefits with their cameras on.
Magdalena Dolorico-Francoeur, a sophomore, began the school year with her camera on, but soon turned it off because she was the only one. Going dark made her feel more disconnected, she said, and left her more easily distracted: “It’s easier to zone out if my camera’s off, because there are no consequences.”
Predictably, though — given the ingenuity of teenagers — some have found a way around the rule: They turn their cameras on and point them straight up at the ceiling, where teachers get a prime view of blank plaster or light fixtures.
“Even with cameras on, it’s mostly people’s ceilings,” said one student. “It’s a lot of ceilings.”
Naomi Martin of the Globe staff contributed to this report.