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Is it legal for public schools to require a student to run a webcam-video for remote classes in Massachusetts?

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  • Could you clarify what you mean by "require video"? Are you asking if it is legal for them to require the student to have a webcam running and pointed at them the entire time? – Ryan M Sep 1 '20 at 22:50
  • Yes, that's correct. I'll update my post to reflect that clarification. – Harrison Mayotte Sep 1 '20 at 23:30
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    As a teacher, I would deem it reasonable to require video as long as the internet is good enough for streaming both ways, but if only one way video is manageable, I'd prefer if the pupil can see me over me needing to see them - my whiteboard is more important than me seeing all pupils. On the other hand, me seeing the pupils would be an enormous help, as I can see if pupils have problems with the class taught by them either zoning out or looking distressed. IT also can help with spotting distractions, like looking on something next to the camera/monitor. – Trish Sep 2 '20 at 14:31
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The first sub-question here is whether (public) schools can compel (parents of) students to acquire internet service, a computer, and a webcam. The MA Dept. of Education maintains that public schools must purchase at public expense textbooks and other instructional materials and supplies intended for use and re-use over a period of years, and computers fall in the category of materials intended for schools to purchase and use and re-use. There is no legislative authority to compel parents to purchase equipment or sign up for internet services. If there is a choice between in-person and online instruction, the legal requirement to attend school can be satisfied by in-person instruction.

The second sub-question is whether, if a child does have the technical ability to be connected to class via the internet, can they legally require the camera to be turned on? Every district has rules, so if there is a rule requiring parental consent in this situation, then parental consent is required. If it is legal at that level, there is still a legal risk to the school. Schools can generally do those things that are reasonably necessary for educating students as long as it doesn't infringe on fundamental constitutional rights, and the camera-on requirement is educationally reasonable. The risk to the school is violating the federal law FERPA, specifically a potential violation of the privacy requirements. Schools must protect personal information, which includes anything streaming from the camera (pictures, for example, are personally identifiable information). If you assume that they have an absolutely secure connection, then there is no risk of privacy violation. However, if you believe, even reasonably so, that a school practice creates a risk of breach of privacy, that still does not create a special right to avoid school.

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  • note that, if the stream is reasonably encrypted and not saved anywhere, that might cut in favor of the school: the picture becomes just as ephemeral as the presence in the school. – Trish Sep 2 '20 at 14:31

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