City School District Disabled Cameras On Student-Issued Computers Because of Privacy Concerns

May 19, 2020

Most Pittsburgh Public School students with district-issued computers cannot video conference with their teachers when they’re asking questions or completing assignments.

The district chose to not turn on computer cameras that would allow video conversations because of privacy concerns. Only students at the Creative and Performing Arts magnet school downtown have video capabilities with district-issued devices. 

Students with their own devices have the option to video conference with teachers. 

“The devices were going into parents homes and we didn’t know if it would be clear to parents that there would be a camera on the device that would essentially be able to see into their home,” said Ted Dwyer, the district’s chief accountability officer.

Dwyer, the district's Chief Accountability Officer, is assisting the Information Technology team in the absence of a district Technology Director. So far the district has spent nearly $3 million to purchase 5,000 laptops and 7,000 Chromebooks for students. The district surveyed families two weeks after schools initially closed and found that a majority needed devices in order for students to complete assignments online.

About 1,000 of those devices have been issued to 8th through 12th grade students. The Chromebooks will go to 2nd through 5th graders, making those grades what schools call “one to one.”

Many suburban districts were one to one before the statewide school closure. Every student had a device and the move to remote learning happened quickly. Only two PPPS schools, both magnets, were one to one before the closure: the Creative and Performing Arts school and the Science and Technology Academy.

PPS Superintendent Anthony Hamlet said in a phone call with reporters last week that his goal is for the district to be fully synchronous in the fall. That means real time instruction. Currently, that can happen with audio only, but Dwyer acknowledges video makes the lessons more engaging.  

“Cameras are not essential, but they are very beneficial,” he said.

Many districts across the state allow students to use video cameras including the Philadelphia School District. The state’s largest school district, though, is using a hybrid model similar to Pittsburgh.

Some Pittsburgh teachers upload assignments, recorded videos and lessons on the Microsoft Teams platform. Students complete their work on their own time and can talk to their teachers during their office hours through a phone call, email or using the internal microphone in their computer. Many students are completing paper homework packets as they wait for their computers to arrive.

Dwyer said the district is working on creating clearance forms for parents to sign off on camera use in homes. Devices would have to be returned to buildings to have cameras enabled.

As district administrators have said for weeks, the district is learning as it goes.

*This story was updated 5/20 at 10 a.m. to reflect that students with their own devices have the option to video conference with their teachers.