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A fifth-grade teacher I know laughingly told a parent recently, “I adore having your kid in my class, but I gotta tell you, if I ever passed them on the street, I’d never know, because their camera has never been on.” It was gallows humor. But I know how to make the joke turn stale — if only those in power would listen to me.

As the principal of a multicultural, socioeconomically diverse public school in San Francisco, I’ve seen seventh and eighth grade classes where only one or two students had their cameras on. Usually my middle school students look at a screen with mostly blank boxes and a talking teacher instead of the lively “Zoom rooms” filled with beautiful, familiar faces that my first graders get. It’s like staring at the back of a “Guess Who” game board — except in this format, teachers are playing against no one.  This new normal of distance learning can feel like the blind leading the unseen.

I understand that requiring cameras to be turned on can invade students’ privacy. Students have told me they don’t want others seeing their messy rooms or chaotic home lives or are embarrassed to be logging on from a hub for disadvantaged students. A seventh grader confided that they’re going through puberty and hate their appearance.

Related: ‘I can’t do this anymore’: How four middle schoolers are struggling through the pandemic

Teachers are sensitive to their students’ insecurities and privacy issues, but they’ve told me looking out at many empty boxes saddens them, for a variety of reasons. Cameras allow teachers to make critical emotional connections and build community. Teaching while suspecting those on the receiving end may not be there kills morale. It’s like trying to give a rousing speech to an empty stadium.

For teachers, seeing kids light up at their carefully orchestrated words, graphics and slides is a source of affirmation so essential that I consider it a basic need. And when it’s met, teachers can’t help ratcheting up their own enthusiasm;  one student’s enjoyment of a lesson can be contagious, until a critical mass of widened eyes and hands slapped over mouths makes it clear to all: Science is cool. 

Not only do classes tend to be more engaging with cameras on; teachers can also be more responsive. When materials don’t land as intended, blank stares and cringes can provide necessary immediate feedback, rather than the teacher waiting for days until assignments come back.

Cameras also help teachers mediate student-to-student interactions. One parent shared that her child has a speech impediment and has gotten very self-conscious about speaking over Zoom. During normal school, if someone made a face, the teacher could address it right away and shut it down. Now, teachers can’t see how kids are reacting to one another. This state of affairs is even more unacceptable when dealing with microaggressions.

The San Francisco Unified School District attendance policy stating that kids can attend a Zoom class “with or without camera on” preserves student privacy at the cost of student engagement and teacher effectiveness, sacrificing the ability of all involved to live and respond in the moment. While we have “attendance” statistics showing how many kids are logged on each day, without cameras on it’s unclear whether kids are really showing up.

Some schools are trying proven tactics like “acceleration” to address learning loss. We’d like to as well. We don’t want to just remediate, calling this year a loss and starting next year with everyone teaching down a grade. But we can’t quickly progress to more advanced lessons if we can’t see a quizzical look on a kid’s face and other indicators of who is and isn’t getting what. 

With all this in mind, I had a simple idea to balance everyone’s needs: A reverse webinar mode on Zoom allowing a teacher to see all students, while preventing students from seeing one another (unless they opt in).

Related: OPINION — How can we prevent a generation of pandemic-isolated misfits?

So I wrote to Zoom. A support manager told me  my request would be brought to the attention of the product team, but the email also chided me that “the quickest and most appropriate channel would be through communication with your account administrators.” In other words, talk to the district.

Then I heard from my district. “We are grateful for your advocacy on behalf of our students … and appreciate your perspective as a site leader,” the email said, but continued: “However, we want to make sure we follow the proper channels so that our interactions with district vendors can have the greatest impact based on the collective needs of the district.” Talk to my immediate bosses, it said. Send it up the flagpole and wait.

Teaching while suspecting those on the receiving end may not be there … is like trying to give a rousing speech to an empty stadium.

But I can’t wait. My kids can’t wait. I didn’t want to write an article that could get me in trouble. Yet over Thanksgiving break, a former student of ours, who had moved on to high school, died by suicide. I asked myself, was it because he felt so disconnected?

When I informally surveyed my current sixth through eighth graders, I got quite a surprise. Most middle school students actually want to see their classmates’ faces and would like everyone to have their cameras on. They just don’t want to be the first to do it.

Most people think the hardest part of being a principal is figuring out how to make things better. That’s the easy bit. Bigger issues are the lack of can-do attitude and the need to operate within bureaucracy that slows momentum or stops intuitive, easy fixes. (After I told a counselor at my school about drafting this article, she sent me a teacher’s TikTok requesting the same feature.) 

There’s a lot that’s hard. Closing the achievement gap is hard. Figuring out how to make teachers feel safe at school is hard. But this one should be easy. We need to find better ways to make the easy stuff happen, and happen faster. We need site leaders’ expertise to be acknowledged and acted on without endless meetings and committees. And we can’t wait until there’s less going on. We need a new “new normal” in education, and we need it now.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a hotline for individuals in crisis or for those looking to help someone else. To speak with a certified listener, call 1-800-273-8255.

Nancy Bui, who came to the United States as a refugee at age 10, is the principal of Rooftop School, a  public school in San Francisco for pre-K through eighth grade. 

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