Please, Don’t Make Students Video Chat During Distance Learning
2020 has brought a new challenge across the world: distance learning.
For many students (and the adults that take care of them), school is an essential part of the everyday routine and a great place for kids to learn, receive care, and socialize.
But after COVID-19 invaded our lives, we’ve had to grapple with losing all of that.
Most schools across the US are opting for distance learning measures. There have been a few districts that have chosen to shut down or offer optional learning, though many have simply transitioned to distance learning with similar grading and credit measures in place. The good news is, students still have a place to learn, the support of their teachers, and some semblance of a routine. But the bad news?
Distance learning affects some groups disproportionately.
First and foremost, one of the major parts of distance learning for a large majority of schools has been video chatting. (Thankfully, many schools have been generous about providing electronic items to students who cannot afford them, which has been a huge part of making this possible.) Systems like Zoom and Google Meet are now flooded daily with students and teachers meeting together, trying to find some way to bring direct interaction to the virtual classroom. In my school district, these video chats have become the basis of the distance learning routine. At least one day a week, students must meet with teachers and other classmates via video call to discuss class updates and walk through learning concepts.
And not only do these video chats exist, but students are mandated to attend them. And many of the teachers that I know are insisting on students attending the meetings with both their microphone and camera on. I’ve also seen a variety of other regulations come from teachers — regulations such as wear appropriate clothing, conduct the video call from an appropriate place (no calling in the bathroom), and please attend the call for the entirety of the allotted time period.
There are a few things wrong with these regulations. Let’s walk through them.
1. Students need to have their microphone and camera on during video calls.
Why is this necessary? I realize that, as a teacher, it is inherently easier to teach when the student is visible and audible. It feels more like a classroom when you can look out and see their faces. Yes, in theory, it makes sense. But the reality of this is much more complicated. For students from low-income families, they may not feel like their surroundings are suitable for a video call. If their house is messy, run-down, or small, they may feel self-conscious about displaying this to all of their peers. And regardless of income, students may also be coming from large families, which makes video calling super difficult to do without invading the privacy of family members. Furthermore, the concept of having to turn a microphone on is also problematic. There are certainly students who struggle with toxic family situations or even domestic abuse, so forcing a student to reveal either the sight or the sound of their circumstances can be nerve-wracking and insensitive.
2. Students need to wear appropriate clothing.
This one is a little bit less problematic. I know most teachers mean well when they specify this rule. At first glance, this probably means “don’t wear pajamas to your class video call!” or “please don’t sit in your underwear in front of your peers.” But the term “appropriate clothing” is awfully vague. What constitutes appropriate clothing? Is it modest clothing? Is it casual clothing? Is it clean clothing? Without the specifics, it can be hard for some students not to feel targeted. Students for whom laundry is a financial burden, or students who cannot afford “nice” clothing to wear in the virtual classroom, may struggle with this.
3. During video calls, be in an appropriate place (not the bathroom).
Social distancing has been hard for everyone, and one of the hardest everyday parts of it has been family members cooped up in the same living quarters. For larger families, this is a gigantic issue. Conducting a video call from an “appropriate place in the house” may have to be a bathroom for those living in small houses, those with family members scattered throughout every room, or those who live in very noisy conditions where the bathroom may be the only quiet place to sit and converse virtually. And depending on a student’s living situation, the bathroom may be the only place they feel comfortable showing online — a neutral space where they cannot be judged for what it looks or sounds like.
4. Please attend the call for the entirety of the allotted time period.
Again, students with large families (or even smaller-sized families) may struggle with this rule. In a house with multiple kids, there may be learning times that overlap one another. For instance, if a family has two kids of school age and one student is expected to be on a video call from 10am-11am but another student is expected to attend a video call from 10:15–10:45 and the family only has access to 1 electronic device to share between the two kids, a problem presents itself. There is no possible way that both students can attend their respective video class time for the full timespan. Additionally, kids who work in low-income households or who work for essential businesses may be picking up extra hours at work to help with bills, as COVID-19 has also brought many financial woes. And among large families or families that cannot afford childcare, older students may be tasked with taking care of younger siblings during the weekdays, taking away the time, resources, and attention that would allow them to do a full video call.
Obviously, teachers mean well in using videos for distance learning. For the most part, it is efficient and it can be a good bonding experience for peers and staff members who are physically separated. And as for the rules: yes, expectations are essential to holding students accountable, and yes, setting rules helps with organization and the establishment of a good routine. But in this case, there needs to be some extra conscientiousness. If teachers insist on having these rules, it is important to be flexible in the follow-through. It’s important to let students know that you are there to help them, and to be clear about the fact that students can contact their teachers for help or be honest if their circumstances do not fit the distance learning plan. Some teachers may even consider offering students the option to schedule private, one-on-one video calls in place of a class video call to accommodate students with situational or time difficulties.
Shifting from an in-person curriculum to a distance curriculum is hard enough already — that’s indisputable. Every teacher is trying to do what’s best for their students and be as helpful as they can in making this transition smoother. But part of being an educator is being willing to accommodate situations for the sake of the student’s learning, health, comfort, and safety.
To every educator out there — thank you for fighting the good fight and being patient with both students and parents as we all navigate this new journey. Thank you for always putting forth your best effort and compassion. It is a lot to ask. We appreciate you.