WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - Chalk it up to another bizarre situation that might not have ever happened were it not for COVID-19. WECT has learned a New Hanover County high school teacher was suspended from her job without pay, after getting caught smoking on a Zoom call in front of her students.
The situation happened during the first semester, and involved a class of marketing students at New Hanover High School. The students were working remotely, and the teacher was in her own home. WECT spoke to the teacher, whose name we have decided not to publish, to confirm many of the details that had first been relayed to us by students and parents.
“Zoom was totally new to me,” the teacher explained to WECT. She said that she was giving a PowerPoint presentation, and thought she was off-camera while she smoked at her kitchen table. “I was totally unaware that there was a little picture of me” at the corner of the screen.
New Hanover County Schools has a no tobacco policy.
“The use of tobacco products on or in any school property, or at any school-sponsored activity or event (regardless of location), is prohibited,” the NHCS policy reads. “The Board... believes adults working in the school environment should be positive role models for students and must not use tobacco or nicotine. Therefore, the New Hanover County Schools and all related properties are tobacco and nicotine free. School employees, volunteers and visitors may not at any time use or display tobacco or nicotine containing products, including but not limited to electronic cigarettes (e-cigarettes), on school premises or at any school-sponsored events, both indoor and outdoor, and both off and on school system property.”
The teacher indicated this was a one-time event, but students said she was smoking during her Zoom class on multiple occasions. They added that after she was first reported for smoking during class, she would lean off camera to take a drag off her cigarette, but they could still see the smoke coming out of her mouth when she came back on camera.
The teacher, who said she had been with the school system for 15 years, was asked to do a Zoom conference with her school administrators after students saw her smoking. She said she was surprised when she logged on to that call that Central Office Personnel were also present, and informed her she was being suspended without pay for three days.
“It was overkill for something so simple that could have been a slap on the hand,” the teacher said. “I was made an example of. I didn’t want to go back to school after that.”
The teacher said she had already planned to retire in January 2021, and after being suspended, she decided to burn paid time off until her retirement took effect. Parents received a letter saying she would not be returning to the classroom, and a coach at the school with a marketing background covered her teaching duties for the rest of the semester.
The teacher lamented that the students did not have to have their cameras on during Zoom calls, but she did. She said she is now happily retired.
“It did happen. [Administrators] swore as long as I signed the paperwork, nothing would ever be said about it,” the teacher recalled. But she said they did warn her that video of her smoking during class was in the possession of some students, and there was nothing they could do to control that.
New Hanover County Schools confirmed investigating this incident, but a spokesman said they could not comment further because it was a “confidential personnel matter.” They said the teacher retired effective December 31.