With millions of kids attending online school this year, students are getting a prolonged peek into the living rooms — and lives — of their classmates. And some parents aren’t keen on the sudden invasion of their privacy.
“It’s a big ask to turn on three live-streaming cameras in my home for a large part of the day,” said A’Dell Stevens, a stay-at-home mom in Flower Mound, Tex., whose kids are in second, fourth and sixth grade. “If I vacuum or talk too loud with my doctor or if our dog goes crazy when a new dog is walking by, a lot of people will know. It seems silly to be bothered, but it’s our home life. And now it’s being shared with strangers.”
Though Stevens’s school district published a policy that students must be visible for remote learning at all times, “they didn’t offer any guidelines for when it may be acceptable not to have your camera on,” she said.
One of her biggest concerns is that her 7-year-old, who has some behavioral disorders, will have a sensory meltdown during online school. “It makes me uncomfortable,” she said. “What happens if his worst moments are caught on camera for my older kids’ classmates, teachers and their families to see?”
Sarah Walsh recently had a brush with exposure of a different kind. Her school district’s superintendent emailed parents to inform them that a man had disrobed in view of his child’s camera while the student was in a learning session online. The school, the sheriff’s department and Child Protective Services immediately launched an investigation, though ultimately found no wrongdoing.
“Based on the process the district explained they took, my takeaway is that it was a dad getting dressed,” said Walsh, a communications professional in Southern California. Although the incident was probably just an awkward privacy gaffe, she said, “it does add yet another thing to worry about.”
For some parents, it’s not just what the camera might capture that’s concerning, but what the microphone can pick up, too. Meghan Myszkowski’s kindergartner spends roughly three hours in live Zoom meetings every day. At lunchtime, Myszkowski said, most kids leave the screen up so they can see the countdown timer. “Since it’s a break, everyone is off mute,” she said. “I’ve overheard several family conversations and discussions.” For Myszkowski, a vice president at an advertising agency in Los Angeles, this has served as a warning.
“What I’ve heard coming from other people’s homes has made me very conscious of what people might be able to hear from ours,” she said. And although she’s training her daughter on Zoom etiquette, it’s an ongoing process. “We can’t expect 5-year-olds to know how to mute and un-mute,” she said. “Most adults I know aren’t even that great at it.”
Ben Griggs, head of school at the Marin School in San Rafael, Calif., said there are several ways parents can help their kids — and themselves — preserve privacy during online school. “Give students a designated workspace that’s the same every day, so you’re not revealing too much of your home or who’s in it,” he said. “Have them sit with their backs to the wall to avoid any foot traffic or commotion behind them. And make sure they take their breaks off-screen.”
Although a virtual background can help keep a child’s surroundings private, Griggs said, some backgrounds can be distracting. His solution is to narrow the scope a bit: Students can only choose a background that relates to the topic they’re studying.
And if parents should find themselves within earshot of the online classroom? “Just always assume your child is not on mute,” Griggs said. “Even if they’re supposed to be.”
Michael Rohrs, who leads the cyber consulting practice in the Americas for the risk consultancy firm Control Risks, said now is a good time for families to have a conversation about privacy: how they think about it, what their potential privacy risks are and how they can reduce them as much as possible.
“It’s useful for parents to have an understanding between them of what their own risk tolerance is,” he said. “Part of that is agreeing what’s acceptable regarding how much of your home and work life is exposed to your child’s community, and how much of your personal information and your child’s personal information you’re comfortable with sharing.”
Though parents should recognize the organizational challenges schools may have as they transition to remote learning, Rohrs said, they should still feel empowered to ask questions about how the school is addressing privacy concerns. At Griggs’s school, for example, visiting tutors who join a meeting to give virtual lessons must undergo the same fingerprinting scan they would be subject to if they were guests in the physical classroom. One way to manage your privacy risk, Rohrs said, is “to get really comfortable with the settings of your devices and accounts, particularly the ones that control whether your camera and microphone are on all the time.” Although you can’t always easily cover your microphone, he said, “you can look at the settings to see how often it’s on and what services on your device have access to it; a lot of them don’t need it, but have default access anyway.”
To block your webcam while you’re not using it, Rohrs recommends an inexpensive retractable cover, which stays on permanently and can be slid open and shut. A headset is also essential for anyone talking and listening all day, Rohrs said; the kind with a mute button on the cord may be easier for kids to control than the mute function on the screen.
Although it may feel like you’re on display right now, spare a thought for teachers, many of whom are suddenly teaching from their homes, for an audience that includes not just their students, but often their students’ parents, too. Still, said Kari Hermeling, an eighth-grade teacher in Lancaster, Pa., the glimpse she gives of her personal life isn’t always a bad thing.
“Sometimes the ‘show and tell’ over Zoom is the only way we can build those essential connections with kids,” she said. “I occasionally hold my goofy-looking Boston terrier on screen to help ease the discomfort.”
To help her children adjust to online school, Stevens has ordered cardboard room dividers to create makeshift cubicles around each one. Myszkowski is rearranging her house so her daughter can work with some supervision while the rest of the family gets the privacy they need. That means squeezing a desk into her bedroom, setting her daughter’s workstation up in the dining room and making the glorious discovery that the WiFi extends to the back patio. Essentially, Myszkowski said, every space in her home is doing double duty.
“It’s a tough balancing act, but that sums up 2020,” she said. “We’re all just trying to make it work.”
Holly Burns is a writer in the San Francisco Bay area. Her work has also appeared in the New York Times.