Fairfield students say camera mandate is privacy violation

FAIRFIELD — Some students have taken issue with a recent mandate requiring students to keep their cameras on at all times during class, saying it’s inequitable and violates their privacy.

“I know some students feel as though this would be an invasion, and don’t feel comfortable exposing their home environment, which varies from student to student,” Sophia Mughal, a student, said at a recent virtual town hall.

Board member Jeff Peterson said the policy, which started last week, had resulted in an increase in the number of emails the board receives from students. One thing he said he had been hearing is that not all of the Chromebook laptops students use allow blurring the background during video calls.

“That’s a thing that I’m certainly willing to follow up (on) with our technology staff about,” Peterson said.

Peterson said he understands concerns that students might not want to show the inside of their house or bedroom, noting that it could bring bullying or unwanted attention. He said the policy came out of professional development — with a goal of increasing engagement with students.

Daniel Jaber, a student, said the problem goes beyond just blurring backgrounds.

“As a Fairfield public student working through the new camera mandate, I think it has a few flaws and inequities,” he said. “I’m not saying it’s completely flawed, and that we need to scrap it completely, but I do think there are some issues that need to be brought up and kept in the front of our minds.”

Jaber said the problems with the policy outweigh the positives. One issue, he said, is that most students do not have a “tranquil and private” place to join a meeting without any disruptions. He called it an invasion of privacy.

“Not every student has the ability to isolate themselves... they kind of don’t have the option not to work alongside their family and their student siblings,” Jaber said. “Not every student is comfortable with sharing this level of intimacy with their classrooms.”

He also said every student has WiFi, but not every student has the bandwidth to support audio and video at the same time. Adding to that, he said students typically have other windows open for schoolwork — further straining the internet connection.

His point was illustrated during the town hall when his connection dropped.

“Not only do the schools have connection issues, but, even right now with what just happened, I have connection issues on a daily basis where I disconnect from (Google Meet),” Jaber said, just before his feed started to cut out a second time. “Then, you add parents working from home or siblings working from home.”

BOE Chairwoman Christine Vitale said one suggestion that had come up was putting a backdrop behind students to obscure their home setting. She said the issue is on the board’s radar and members will follow up with Superintendent of Schools Mike Cummings about it.

Fairfield Public Schools declined to comment, but said revisions to the plan were coming next week.

Board member Jennifer Maxon Kennelly said she thinks it is an important policy for the district to maintain.

“It is always something that would be easier to relax in the future, but to not starting with it, I think, is part of what has made this very difficult,” she said, noting she is a teacher in the Greenwich school district, which has required students to keep their cameras on the entire time from the beginning of the year.

Maxon Kennelly also disagreed that there are other ways to ensure students are attending class.

“Not without constantly interrupting your instruction,” she said. “Sophia, are you there? Daniel, are you there? Gabriella, are you there? Now, you’re interfering dramatically with the instruction that all students are receiving. I don’t think that’s appropriate.”

Maxon Kennelly said she did understand the concerns, but the policy is used as a helpful tool for teachers to keep students in the hybrid program — and the remote learning academy — engaged.

Jaber said he understands having to turn on your camera for Google Meets, but having to keep your camera on the entire time to be counted for attendance is unjust.

“I understand that you want to provide a sense of community, and encourage interactions between students and teachers... but I don’t think that forcing students to turn on their cameras is in any way a means to accomplish these goals,” he said.

joshua.labella@hearstmediact.com