For some of us, these last few months have been our first experience with working from home on an extended basis. Getting accustomed to the new normal can be frustrating as children and pets intrude on web meetings, internet connections falter and our remote access disconnects for no apparent reason. It can also be fun.  Some of us have enjoyed spending whole days in our pajamas typing away on many different kinds of assignments. When attending virtual meetings, it has been interesting seeing colleagues with shaggy hair against the more relaxed backdrop of their homes.   

Being more relaxed, however, can create issues. While off camera, it may be acceptable to work on projects in your pajamas, it is definitely not acceptable to participate in a public board meeting or attend class in pajamas. Board members and administrators have approached NJSBA with inquiries pertaining to decorum while participating in virtual meetings, classes and other virtual activities.  Topics include attendance; dress code for students, staff and board members; and recording classes or meetings. 

Initially, we responded that existing policies do give guidance for conducting meetings and the educational program virtually. Policy 4119.26/4219.26, Electronic Communication between Staff and Students, applies and requires teachers maintain professional communications through the district provided network and devices when interacting with students. Policies 4119.22/4219.22, Staff Conduct and Dress, and 5132, Student Dress and Grooming, usually detail the district rules for acceptable appearance during school hours. Also 5113, Attendance Absences and Excuses, covers the attendance requirements and the consequences for being tardy to class.  While school is being conducted in a virtual environment, it is still school and board policies apply.

But problems persist with what our virtual windows display. For example, people overlook the background visible from a web camera. One district reported that a home office set up in the employee’s dining room showed an excellent view of their stocked liqueur cabinet during the virtual class. It is very true that we are not used to thinking about what is in the background when we report to a physical school each day. Students showing up for class in pajamas or worse, dealing with Sponge Bob backgrounds and other distracting effects have created the necessity to write policy language that addresses some of the issues unique to the virtual environment and give students, board members and staff guidance.

Code of Conduct Remote Teaching – Online Classroom Recently, NJSBA developed a sample policy 4119.27/4219.27 Code of Conduct Remote Teaching – Online Classroom Participation that details rules for teachers conducting online classes and for student participation in online classes. This is a discretionary policy that is not required by law, and may be amended to meet your needs and address your specific issues. This sample is divided into two sections — one for students and one for staff. 

Rules for student conduct in the remote classroom cover dress, organization, punctuality, attendance and courtesy.  Communication outside of remote classrooms is addressed and emphasizes civility and polite and respectful communications.  The policy makes students responsible for reporting problems that affect accessibility. Student privacy rights with regard to recording classes is also addressed. 

The rules for teachers stress clear communication with students and parents/guardians on classroom expectations. Clear communication includes creating a consistent schedule for class and allocating time for office hours to address questions from students and parents/guardians or provide extra help. 

In addition to clear communication with students, staff are required to keep their supervisor informed and promptly report any problems that affect student accessibility to the educational program. Online etiquette is covered with guidelines for dress, backgrounds and attendance and punctuality.   

Privacy has been a recurring concern for virtual classes.  Teachers are required to inform students in advance of live sessions if they will be recorded. Students may then choose to turn off their webcam if they do not wish to be part of the recording and this should not affect their attendance.  Recorded classes must not be distributed to third parties outside the district or posted for public viewing. Recorded classes will only be accessible to the students in that class and may be made accessible to other teachers and students of the district only with parental consent. 

Code of Conduct for Remote Board Meetings  Teachers and students are not the only ones affected by this new and drastic change of venue. There have been many inquiries regarding conduct at public board meetings that are held virtually. In response to reports and concerns related to board member conduct and dress, and public conduct during the public comment section of the board meeting, the NJSBA Field Services Department developed a code of conduct for virtual board meetings. The emphasis of this code of conduct is to keep meetings focused and orderly. It covers respecting the role of the meeting presider and maintaining professional decorum in speech and dress. It also gives guidance for handling the public comment section of the meeting and holding closed sessions.

The code of conduct stresses preparation and making certain that equipment is functioning adequately and that the meeting environment in the individual member’s location is conducive to the meeting: quiet with minimal distractions, well lit and consistent from meeting to meeting. These precautions help ensure that the meeting is accessible to all who tune in for compliance with the Open Public Meetings Act. The sample policy Code of Conduct is below. 

NJSBA Sample Policy File Code: 9322

In an effort to support the state initiatives to reduce the rapid spread of the coronavirus, we have all been forced to expand our concept of the classroom and the board meeting beyond physical meeting places. Having done this out of necessity, it may follow that now that this particular bell has been rung, it cannot be un-rung. Once we are free of the social isolation restrictions, some of the potential that we have discovered conducting education programs and meetings remotely may have useful applications in the general operation of schools and districts. Nothing can replace the experience of attending class with peers and teachers physically present, but having other ways to reach students and the public can make education more accessible.     

For the sample and model policies and regulations discussed in this article or for help developing policy and regulation language to suit your needs do not hesitate to contact NJSBA Policy Services:   

Jean Harkness is an NJSBA policy consultant.