To Turn Your Camera on or not to: A Virtual Gym Dilema


“Day 12, Project 365 – 11.1.09” by William Brawley is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Elizabeth Alton

I’m normally someone that makes an effort to engage in classes, but somehow I just can’t bring myself to turn my camera on during virtual P.E. class. Participation in P.E. class was never an issue for me when we were in person. Despite a dreadful lack of hand eye coordination, including a few cliché encounters on the receiving end of a kickball to the face, I still enjoyed and completed classes to the best of my ability. Virtual P.E. is a different story. Time and time again (time which has now added up to almost two months), I have failed to turn my camera on during live workouts. My class of around thirty five people only has zero to three students with their cameras on during any given lesson. We can’t “turn our cameras off” in real life, so why is it easy to be proactive during an in-person gym class, but over zoom, a gallery of names instead of faces appears?

There seem to be three reasons why people decide to keep their cameras off. The first reason people turn their camera’s off is that they don’t want to do the workout. The second is that they are doing the workout, but don’t feel comfortable doing it on camera. For a minority of students, it’s because they have some sort of tech issue and genuinely can’t.

Junior Ella Oppenhimer has found that although she turns her camera on during academic classes, she doesn’t always do the same during P.E. 

“A lot of people feel self conscious because unlike other classes you’re not just showing your head and neck, it’s your whole body, and your background…” Oppenheimer said. “Sometimes I’ll turn my camera out and work out in the corner of my room, but I normally keep it off.”

Oppenhimer has also experienced one of the main divides between a virtual and in-person, where in a virtual climate it’s easy to feel like you’re by yourself.

“If more people did it it would be easier, but it’s hard to be the first person,” Oppenhimer said. It can feel like everyone’s looking at you even if you’re not. It’s different at school then when you’re by yourself in your room.”

Junior Ava Simon feels similarly in terms of the pressures of turning your camera on when no one else does. 

“I feel like it’s weird [to turn your camera on], but if you were the only one without your camera, like when everyone is doing [the workout] in school, that’s also awkward,” Simon said. 

It’s not easy to be the one person that turns your camera on when no one else is. NHS president Marcus Hopper, who consistently turns his camera on during zoom gym classes understands why some people might be wary.

“There’s some unspoken statement like you shouldn’t not turn your camera on,” Hopper said.  “It’s a little bit embarrassing to do some workouts you’ve never done before, but at the end of the day we’re all in this together, and if you don’t take that first step to try and be inclusive, nobody will.” 

That “unspoken rule” is askin one of the six different types of peer pressure, unspoken peer pressure. The idea is that while nothing is directly said to you, you see a certain action performed by your peers and feel pressured to conform to it. All of us have made this decision as a group to turn our cameras off without releasing it, and to break that cycle, we may have to decide as a group to do the opposite. 

Teachers, on the other side of the spectrum, are left speaking to an array of names instead of faces. 

Marianna Telerman, the P.E. teach for both the middle school and tenth grade, has seen the effects of a lack of camera first hand.

“…When we’re teaching, when we ask questions, there’s no face reaction.” Telerman said. “They also don’t respond, and they don’t write it in the chat, so it literally feels like you’re talking to a blank screen and no one is there.”

That divide isn’t just a change on a professional level either, it’s personal too. 

“If you don’t put your camera on, I technically don’t know you, especially the sixth graders,” Telerman said. “There’s some students I’ve never seen, I don’t know who they are, I don’t know if they are boys or girls.”

That isolation between teachers and students as well as between students and other students, is more drastic than ever before. 

Jozef Mackie who teaches P.E. and Health to eleventh and ninth grade, has definitely seen a difference in participation.

“It’s decreased massively, it’s very hard to control because I’m trying to be as engaging, as entertaining, as interesting… and as relevant as possible, and meet everyone’s needs where they are physically and mentally,” Mackie said. “It’s hard to have five different things to control and the one thing I can’t control is the participation on a camera.”

An increase in student participation could drastically change the way that the class is taught.

“It would add so much value because the energy in the room would be completely different, it would be a lot more interaction,” Mackie said. “I can change the way the lessons are planned, I can change the way the lessons are performed, so it’s more interactive opposed to you guys watching me tell you what to do.”

I would say that I fall into the aforementioned groups one and two. I have a gym second period, and even if I’m at my desk, I can’t always find the motivation to move around. That said, the main reason is the second, I don’t want to be the only one (or even one of two or three people) on camera. I tried to make an agreement with a friend in my class a few weeks back. We decided we could both keep our cameras on so it wouldn’t be as weird, and ended up bailing as soon as the workout started. It’s an overall uncomfortable feeling that probably comes down to a mix of insecurity and conformity among other factors. The only way to change that is to make a decision as a community to change our actions. 

As a class, everyone that realistically can should participate and turn our cameras on. Engaging in online P.E. the closest we can get to an in-school environment during the pandemic, and frankly it’s the right choice for your body, your grade, out of respect for your teachers, and to build community with your peers. Am I going to turn my camera on in the gym? I’m definitely going to try to do it more often. That said, the only way we can really change the climate of the class is to each make that choice individually and then come together as a class.