In a recent appearance before the Campbell County School Board, Rep. Bob Good renewed his call to put cameras in classrooms so that “parents and family guardians can dial in at any time and see what’s happening in the classroom.”
The goal, Good said, is to make sure that teachers are not filling the heads of impressionable students with “radical leftist indoctrination,” as he put it in a tweet. “We want to make sure there’s not indoctrination going on in the schools,” the Campbell County Republican told the board. “That’s happening all across the country.”
For the sake of argument, let’s assume that this is something we want to do, policywise. Here are some practical considerations that would need to be addressed if we want to put cameras in the classroom.
- Student privacy. We have had a federal law about the privacy of student records since at least 1974, with the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974, also known as the Buckley Amendment, after then-U.S. Sen. James Buckley, R-New York. In recent years, schools have become even more skittish about privacy issues. When I was with The Roanoke Times, I spent seven years running a chain of weekly newspapers that published a lot of school-related material. More than once, we got calls from a parent upset that their child wasn’t listed in the honor roll we had published. Every single time, the reason was the same: The parent hadn’t signed the school’s required form for disclosing such information. Whenever a photographer was allowed into a school to photograph something, teachers had to separate out the kids who could be photographed from those who couldn’t be. So how will this work if we’re putting cameras in classrooms for live broadcasts? The camera’s presumably focused on the teacher, not the students, but teachers often move around – and students sometimes come to the front of the class to make presentations or whatnot.
Even if we never see a student on camera, we would hear some students being mentioned – as teachers call on students, or discipline them for talking in class, chewing gum, putting frogs down somebody’s back, whatever it is kids do these days. We live in a litigious age. What happens when some parent doesn’t like it that his or her precious Little Johnny is being publicly chastised for being a hellion? What about a student who wants to discuss some sensitive personal issue with a teacher – be it turning in Little Johnny for vaping in the boy’s room or something more serious? How would that work if the teacher is wired up? Somehow we will need to square cameras in the classroom with these privacy issues.
Good, in his comments to the Campbell County School Board, likened cameras in the classroom to police body cameras. There’s one key difference, though: The goal here with schools is that these cameras broadcast live. That’s not the case with police body cameras. To get access to those police recordings, you have to file a Freedom of Information Act request and, because you’re getting the recording after the fact, the department has the opportunity to redact whatever portions it considers lawfully redactable. There’s no redacting a live video.
2. Access. Good spoke of “parents and family guardians” having access to the broadcast, so we’re probably not talking here about something the general public would be able to view. Still, we need to think through the logistics of a site that’s available through a password. I hate to break the news but technology often doesn’t work. One of the many reasons that Cardinal News doesn’t have a paywall is that I remember the hassle of the newspaper to manage one. People forget their password. Passwords can be automatically regenerated, but sometimes things still don’t work. People need to be walked through how to clear their cookies or empty their cache. Who handles the customer service requests for cameras in the classroom when some parent’s feed doesn’t work? Then there’s the other end of the technology. I’ve been around community theater where sometimes performers are mic’d up. I’ve also been around community theater where those microphones don’t work. That’s not a reason not to have cameras in the classroom if someone is philosophically inclined to want them, but these are technical details that will come up. We’ll also have to factor in the inevitable requests from someone – presumably that parent or guardian – to rewatch a broadcast. That will take somebody’s staff time. I also wonder about the potential for litigation: Little Johnny is getting suspended for doing a particular bad deed but his family alleges that Little Jimmy did the same thing but did not, and they can prove it if only they had access to the video.
- Cost. Now we get to the least fungible part of cameras in the classroom. Laws about student privacy can be changed. Customer service issues can be ignored. (We all have experience with that!) But cameras will cost money and somebody will have to pay for them, so who will that be? The federal, state or local government? Regardless of who pays, the one thing that will drive up the cost is the need for audio – that’s the difference between this and your standard grainy security camera footage.
Amazon lists a wide range of cameras available but the ones listed as suitable for church broadcasts – which would seem analogous to what would be needed for a classroom – are priced at $338 and $499 apiece. Push Pay lists the price of cameras suitable for church services from $299 to $2,499. Bible Reasons lists prices from $399 to $3,890. When Iowa legislators were debating cameras in the classroom earlier this year, the nonprofit news site Iowa Starting Line quoted an Iowa-based security camera supplier as saying suitable cameras would cost $500 to $1,000 per camera. Plus, “it would take two-to-three hours to install each camera and the technician is paid $20 an hour for labor. For the server and required licensure, it would be about $10,000. And at minimum, it would cost $2,000 for data storage.” (That assumes the broadcasts would be kept for two weeks.) Wayne Barahona, co-owner of Super HiTech, estimated the cost of cameras (plus all the other stuff) for a 40-room school at about $44,000. For his estimate, he went with a middle range price of $750 per camera:
* 40 cameras at $750 apiece ($30,000)
* Server and license ($10,000)
* Data storage ($2,000)
* Camera installations at 2.5 hours per room ($2,000)
Q-Star Technology, a Los Angeles-based company that sells security cameras, also cites a $500 to $1,000 figure for a “low-end” camera and $8,000 for a “high-resolution camera.” We don’t need Hollywood quality here, so let’s see if we can’t lower these costs, shall we? Let’s go with this company’s cheapest cameras – at $500 – and then do another estimate based on being able to swing a deal for a cut-rate $300 camera, especially since a school system would be buying in bulk.
To make this work, we’d need a camera in every classroom. Finding out the number of classrooms in every school is difficult but finding the number of teachers is easy, so if we assume one teacher per classroom we’re winding up with something close to the same number. The Virginia Department of Education’s latest report – for fiscal year 2021 – says that Campbell County has 617.9 teaching positions. The footnotes say this includes guidance counselors and librarians, but not teacher’s aides. Presumably we don’t want or need cameras on guidance counselors and librarians because of the nature of their work, just classroom teachers, so we may not need 617.9 cameras but that’s the figure we’ve got to work with. Let’s dispense with the 0.9 and just work with the 617 figure. If we need 617 cameras in Campbell County, at $500 apiece, that’s $308,500 just for the cameras. If we bargain our way down to $300 cameras, that’s $185,100, plus whatever it costs for a server and license, data storage and installation. Those first two items are harder to price, because we don’t know how much data will need to be stored, but the installation is a pretty specific figure – 2.5 hours per room, at $20 an hour, so $50 per room. If we assume each teacher has a classroom, that’s 617 times $50 or $30,850 to install a camera to monitor each teacher in Campbell County. Between installation and the hardware, we’re up to $215,950 for the county for the cheapest cameras or $339,350 if we have to go with the $500 model. Both prices are probably on the high side. As mentioned earlier, we don’t need cameras on guidance counselors and librarians, and some proposals have called for exempting physical education teachers (who might have their class out on the football field anyway). But $215,950 or $339,350 might still be a reasonably good estimate because we also haven’t figured in yet the server, licensing and data storage. One way or another, we’re probably in the ballpark.
How would this fit into the Campbell County school budget? The state says the county school system received $92.3 million in funds for schools, so the county would either need to add $215,950 to $339,350 in funds from somewhere or reallocate existing funds in that amount. All that’s unknown so we can’t really deal with that. If this is a federal mandate, will the federal government pay for these cameras? Or will this be another one of those dreaded unfunded mandates? Here’s an easier way to compute the cost: The average teacher salary in Campbell County is $48,797, the state says. The cost of cameras ranges from 4.42 teachers to 6.95 teachers – plus servers, licensing and data storage costs. That’s not to say that Campbell would have to do without that many teachers; just that the cost of cameras is equivalent to hiring that many teachers – plus all those other associated costs that are harder to compute. On the other hand, the cameras are a one-time expense until they need to be replaced (although the data storage and other costs may not be), while teachers aren’t.
Given these figures, is that a price worth paying to surveil every teacher in the county? This is a philosophical question and I’m not inclined to tell people what to believe. You’ll have to answer that on our own, depending on your own value system. But this is likely what it would cost.
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Here’s the estimated cost for all the localities in Good’s 5th Congressional District, based on the number of teaching positions. To make the math easier, and to err on the side of a more conservative estimate, I’m rounding all the teacher numbers down to a lower whole number, so even the 182.99 teaching positions in Appomattox County becomes 182 for my purposes here.
|Locality||Number of teachers||Installation||Cost with $300 camera||Cost with $500 camera|
Source for number of teachers: Virginia Department of Education’s Superindent’s Report for 2021
Source for installation cost: Estimate listed above at 2.5 hours per camera at $20 per hour.
Not included: Licensing, data storage, any other expenses.