Editors Note: The article has been updated from the print version to correct the spelling of Tiffany Sines.
Distance learning seems to be more challenging to students and educators than just bad audio and connectivity concerns, which has plagued Colusa County schools since the COVID-19 pandemic ended in-person instruction.
Now, home decorations have entered the conversation after a video went viral of a Colusa High School teacher giving a student 15 seconds to either sit up straight to participate in his Zoom chemistry class, reposition his computer, or remove a political flag from his wall so that it would not appear prominent on his computer screen.
The student, a 16-year-old boy, opted to leave the session without argument.
As social media tends to do, the incident had Colusa County residents arguing both sides of an issue last week on whether schools can or should control what might be present inside a student’s home.
They are arguments happening all over the U.S. and typically concern students whose private homes, which are now public thanks to Zoom, have political imagery such as photos of Pres. Donald J. Trump or posters that say “Make America Great Again.”
Most schools that have threatened disciplinary action have since backed off after pushback from First Amendment Rights organizations, who claim students with progressive political imagery do not receive the same backlash from teachers and other students.
In an era where the Internet is integral to education, the free speech rights in public elementary and secondary schools is largely unsettled. Courts generally recognize school authority over K-12 students and tend to exercise restraint when considering policy decisions. However, parents believe school authority is not boundless and does not extend to their homes.
Tiffany Sines, the boy’s mother, said her son did not record the incident and was not the one that put the video online, but that she is now concerned that bullying on social media or retaliation from his teacher will tarnish his record.
“Hunter is a good student, an athlete, and has helped with local church youth groups,” she said. “He is not a punk, as he’s being referred to, just ask his baseball coach, basketball coaches, or any other local parents that know him.”
Sines reported the Zoom incident during public comment at last Wednesday’s meeting of the Board of Trustees, but because Brown Act regulations do not allow school board members to take any action, they declined to comment. Superintendent Jeff Tuner also declined to comment due to student and teacher confidentiality rights.
Sines said she has spoken with the teacher and school officials since the incident, and that the teacher has apologized, but she believes the school board still needs to address the larger issue.
Like Sines, many parents believe that they have been forced to allow teachers and other students into their homes, leaving their children open to criticism and bullying from anyone who objects to religious artifacts, political imagery, gun cases, animal trophies, sports team memorabilia (including the high school’s former Redskins logo), and other home decor that might appear in the background of a zoom class.
Sines said what was worse is that the teacher spoke to her teenager as if he was a small child, leaving him open to further bullying.
“She tried to shame him in front of his peers,” said Sines, who agreed that her son should have sat up properly for class. “(But it) is obviously the most inappropriate way any adult could have behaved. He’s 16. He has not had classroom management or conflict resolution training and still conducted himself in a more mature manner than the teacher did.”
Sines said she is uncertain how the issue will be resolved. She has three children who attended all three Colusa Unified campuses, with mostly positive outcomes because of the many wonderful teachers her children have had over the years.
But she also knows that her sons are huge supporters of President Trump, which is not going to change any time soon, despite others trying to shame them for it.
“Politics removed from this, there is a much larger issue that this has brought to light,” she said. “The school board needs to address the students’ rights during this new distant learning. We have been forced to allow strangers into our homes. We have the right to decorate it however we want.”
Sines, who said the district did not issue guidance at the onset of distance learning about Zoom backgrounds, has asked the school board to move their next meeting on Sept. 21 to the Community Theater in order to accommodate parents who want to speak to the trustees on this issue without having to use a virtual platform.
“This distant learning is bringing a lot of new challenges, and as they arise, they need to be addressed, learned from, handled quickly to resolve them, and procedures and policies in place to prevent it from happening again,” Sines said.
Sines said many parents feel this incident is an opportunity in distance learning for district officials, students, and parents to learn from and move on. ■