Invisible students: behind the blank screen

Leah Carrier and Sophia Ibrahim

Sophomore Amina Vázquez has a lot going on in her household. She lives with seven siblings and attends virtual school from her dining room table, so it’s understandable that she rarely has her camera on during class.

In the age of distance learning, a turned-off camera means an anonymous classmate. Social interaction is significantly limited during a deadly pandemic, and this period will be remembered, among other things, as a lonely, somber time. In principle, it’s easy to assume that having your face visible in the virtual classroom would help forge connections and familiarity while house-bound, but for many, it amounts to more stress than good.

Vázquez attended Bell Multicultural School for her freshman year of high school. She really wanted to come to Wilson, but had been waitlisted and directed to her district’s feeder school for ninth grade. Transferring to Wilson this year presented an additional obstacle: she not only had to adapt to a new mode of learning this fall, but she was also thrust into a sea of new classmates and teachers.

“I [still] don’t really know anyone,” she said. 

Before school went virtual, Vázquez was very outgoing, always willing to participate, and admittedly a little talkative. Isolation and online school have limited her extroverted spirit, taking a toll on her mental health.

While seeing her peers’ pictures on the screen has helped to put names to faces, keeping her own camera off is usually a conscious decision. Her busy family life is an obvious reason. She also explained, “I don’t like how the camera inverts me, [or] when people watch me talk… sometimes I [just] don’t look presentable.”

For students who are naturally less outgoing, keeping their camera off is a way to handle the anxiety of online school.

Claire, a junior whose name has been changed for anonymity, has mixed feelings about distance learning. Unlike Vázquez, Claire wasn’t much of a social student to begin with, so the transition to online school wasn’t very difficult. However, distance learning has also left her struggling immensely with motivating herself to complete her schoolwork and attend class––a challenge that Vázquez has encountered as well.

In instances when there isn’t much of a reason to have her camera on in the first place (ie. when videos or independent activities are the focus of class), Claire feels indifferent. However, she’s willing to turn her camera on when it feels especially important. “If it’s for something like a presentation or discussion, then I understand,” Claire said. 

However, in other instances, Claire seldom turns on her camera. Claire decides to not turn on her camera because it “causes [her] much anxiety and impedes with [her] ability to complete schoolwork.” If she were to turn her camera on, her stress would cause insecurity about the way she looks and she would “end up focusing on that instead of schoolwork.” 

Peers also influenced Claire’s decision to not turn her camera on. “In electives, a majority of kids are just there for the credit, so barely anyone has cameras on,” she said.  When the other students in her classes don’t have their cameras on, she doesn’t feel obligated to either. But in higher-level classes where she “care[s] more about [her] grade,” the pressure is magnified and Claire’s decision might sway because the class can have more influence on her GPA.

Similar to Vázquez, Claire was generally an active student when school was in-person. And even if Claire didn’t raise her hand to speak on a given class day, teachers could still use eye contact, posture, and other types of body language to ensure her attention.

However, distance learning has added a new level of participation anxiety that is unnatural to Claire. She noted that speaking up during live sessions is “the only way the teacher can see that you actually pay attention.” 

“I feel like it’s a stressful time for everyone,” Vázquez said. “But it may be an even more stressful time for educators.” Thus, she hopes teachers can understand that “some students aren’t being selfish” when they keep their cameras off during class––they may simply be in a crowded or complicated environment. She feels that the new camera-based engagement grade policy is unfair to those who “don’t feel comfortable explaining why [their cameras are off].”

While Claire understands the benefits of mandating camera usage, she still wishes teachers didn’t. “Most of us don’t want to show our faces and we feel awkward. So if we don’t need them on for the activity, it’s just making it harder for us to focus on work.”