As a growing number of school districts decide to start the school year entirely remotely, teachers will have to answer an important question: How many of their classroom norms and rules will they enforce when students are home?
Teachers grappled with this question in the spring, when school buildings abruptly closed down due to the coronavirus outbreak. Students were suddenly learning from home, and teachers had to quickly decide if they would enforce dress codes or rules about snacking and other behaviors through a webcam. Many teachers pleaded with their peers to be lenient, as students were adjusting to the change in routine and dealing with possible trauma.
Now, the dilemma has resurfaced as the start of the school year approaches. Teachers are trying to develop a sense of normalcy and routine this fall while keeping all students on task. Even so, many educators have said on Twitter that the priority should be ensuring student well-being and equity over compliance.
This month, the Springfield, Ill., school district made national headlines for declaring that students who choose remote learning will have to follow the dress code at home—meaning no pajamas. The district also said students couldn’t sit in bed while participating in a video class.
The backlash was swift: Parents and educators from across the country said controlling what students wore in their own home was out of line.
In a statement following the outcry, the district said it hopes “students approach remote learning as they would in a classroom setting, to the extent possible given each student’s individual circumstances.”
But the district also clarified that the dress code will be “flexible,” adding that it won’t punish students for what they wear at home, “especially in this period of uncertainty and adjustment for students, families, and staff.”
Some teachers have drafted and shared their expectations for remote learning. For example, one infographic tells elementary students to turn the camera on, sit at a desk or table, make sure an adult is with you, and wear appropriate clothes.
Teachers say those ground rules will help the classroom run more smoothly, with fewer distractions.
Even so, some students might feel vulnerable opening up their homes to their classmates and teachers. They might not have a quiet, private place to work, and they might be embarrassed letting their classmates see their homes. (Some video-conferencing platforms, like Zoom, allow users to set a digital background, but older computers might not be able to support that feature.)
Josh Stumpenhorst, a teacher-librarian in Naperville, Ill., tweeted that kids “are in no way all in the same spaces physically or emotionally. Let them snack, wear comfortable clothes, and hold the puppy.”
He has only two rules for students during video classes: Be clothed, and be respectful of others. And if a student is snacking, he might take advantage of the “mute all” feature. Stumpenhorst, the 2012 Illinois Teacher of the Year, doesn’t believe teachers should mandate that students have their video cameras on.
Some teachers responded to his tweet, saying that they relied on seeing their students’ faces on camera to get real-time feedback on how the lesson was going.
“I understand as a teacher, you want kids to be engaged in what you’re teaching, but I think rigid expectations of compliance is just going about it the wrong way,” Stumpenhorst said in an interview. “It seems very invasive.”
There are many other tools that would allow teachers to make sure students are paying attention, Stumpenhorst said, such as the virtual “hand-raising” tool, polls, or Google forms to check for understanding.
Teachers, he said, are working hard to create a more structured and normal school day compared to what happened in the spring—but he worries they’re “overstepping some boundaries.”
“If we’re treating [students] with dignity, I think we’ll get a lot more out of them,” he said.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.