One month into the semester, Marcella Mares got an email from her professor at Fresno City College. It said that going forward, cameras and microphones would have to be turned on for her virtual statistics class.
Mares knew that would be a difficult adjustment with her then-10-month-old baby at home with her during the pandemic.
“I emailed him back privately and I had told him that I didn’t have a problem with turning on my camera and microphone, but I would need to turn it off if I needed to feed my baby,” Mares said of the Sept. 23 incident.
His email reply, she says, shocked her: It said she shouldn’t breastfeed during class and should instead wait until after the four-hour instruction is over.
“I’m in my own home. I’m with my baby. So why can’t I feed her?”
She says she did not email her professor, Hung Hua, back.
Later that same day, when the class started, Mares said Hua referenced her email. He told the class he had received an email from a student asking to do “inappropriate things during class.” She says he went on to say students need to be “creative” and learn how to “balance” kids and school.
“I just sat there and I was so embarrassed. My face was so red and I was so mad. I felt like I did something wrong,” she said. With microphones and videos on, she could hear kids in the backgrounds of other students in her class. She wasn’t the only parent in the class.
She posted about the email exchange and Hua’s comments on Facebook, where she was greeted with supportive messages from strangers from around the world.
“I started crying from all the nice things just because I was so unmotivated. And I felt so humiliated at the time that this happened,” she said.
After class, she says she emailed Hua to ask for the school’s rules regarding breastfeeding. She says he emailed back right away to say there were no rules that applied.
A friend of Mares’s cousin saw the Facebook post and shared the incident with her law school professor. Mares learned she should contact her school’s Title IX coordinator for help.
Once she did that, the school’s Title IX coordinator, Lorraine Smith, sent Hua a copy of the regulations. Later, Smith reached out to Mares to apologize on Hua’s behalf, as did the dean of his department, she said.
Eventually, Hua also emailed Mares to apologize and to allow her to turn off the camera and mic to feed her baby.
Fresno City College did not respond to an email asking for comment. California law requires that schools accommodate conditions related to pregnancy, including breastfeeding, without academic penalty.
Hua says he did not know that Title IX protections extended to breastfeeding women. He said he required the cameras because students weren’t participating fully in classes online.
“I’m doing my job as a teacher. I want the students to participate. I want the students to go onto Zoom, do a group worksheet with each other and I want them to see each other and hear each other as if they are in the physical classroom,” he said. “So I wanted this to be translated virtually because we’re in the middle of a pandemic.”
After the incident, Mares said she received an “unsatisfactory” rating on an exam and was advised by a counselor to drop the class and take an excused withdrawal.
Hua says the suggestion and mark was unrelated to this incident. “It has nothing to do with breastfeeding nor was it retaliation,” he said.
The apology from Hua did not sit well with Mares. “I just felt like his apology wasn’t really an apology,” she says.
Hua maintains there are alternatives to breastfeeding during class and that Mares was too “confrontational” by asking to turn off the camera. “She went too far,” he said.
“I think she got offended in a way that I didn’t let her breastfeed her baby, [like] her baby’s going to die of starvation. There are other ways of feeding the baby besides feeding it with their breasts. You can feed it with the bottle,” he said.
Because her Facebook post was public, Mares was flooded with responses from women who have faced similar situations.
Spencer Galvan, a professor in Texas, was among the women who reached out to Mares over Facebook. She’s been teaching classes remotely during the pandemic and breastfeeding since March.
"Normally I try to schedule it for when students are doing group activities so that there’s no interruption but that’s the benefit of being the professor. I can control the schedule according to my needs and my child’s needs. The students don’t have that luxury,” she said.
Mares says she also got a number of responses from outside the United States.
“There are people from other countries saying they can take their kids to class if they need to, that they specifically have rules to say that their kid can go into class with them,” she said. “I think that’s pretty cool. And I think that should be enforced everywhere. Because not everybody has the luxury of affording child care or having extra family members to be able to watch their child for them.”