Across the country, the school year is fast approaching or has already arrived. Some students will set foot in a classroom for the first time since mid-March, but for far more of America’s youth, the fall term will begin on a computer screen in their bedroom.
Virtual learning has academic limitations, and obvious devastating consequences for the social progress of children. But it also cuts kids off from a more personal relationship with teachers and other school staff, who are the largest source of reports to child protection hotlines in the country.
The vast majority of those reports, about 90% according to federal data, are not substantiated as abuse or neglect. But for many youth living with their parents or even with foster parents, school can be an oasis from turbulent times at home.
Keri Richmond, now a co-host of the FosterStrong podcast, entered foster care after a daycare worker reported suspected abuse in her father’s home. She was adopted at age 5, into a family where she would come to be abused by someone in the household.
Richmond chose never to talk to her teachers or school officials about what was happening. “I didn’t want to go back to foster care,” she said. “I was very involved in extracurriculars. I found rest and comfort and encouragement when I was at school.”
What she worries about most in the pandemic are kids like her “who may have similar tumultuous home lifestyles, but were finding some comfort” on campus.
“I saw one news article about teachers going around doing reading time in driveways,” Richmond said. “There’s power behind that, just something to get them access to support systems and their safe places if their home life is chaotic.”
The Imprint asked several large school districts in Minnesota, Texas and Washington several questions about how teachers checked in on kids, policies around expressing concern for what they saw through the screen, and how they dealt with the issue of educational neglect. Here’s what we heard back.
Teachers are instructed to continue to take attendance daily. We updated our teacher attendance taking procedure to capture both positive and negative attendance to prevent any student from being missed. Historically, teachers only documented negative (absent) attendance. Now teachers are required to document student participation (present) as well as student absences. The intent of documenting both positive and negative attendance is a step put in place to create checks and balances to ensure all students are counted.
Educators have been asked to continue communicating with families and students in support of academic work throughout the closure. Specifically, they have been asked to communicate with families at least two times per week via Schoology (our online learning management system), email, phone or the typical way they connect with families throughout the school year.
Per the Texas Education Agency, districts are not required to take attendance for days designated as “Closed, Instructing.”
Our district Distance Learning attendance guidelines state teachers are to reach out to the student/family through the third absence. If a teacher is concerned about information obtained during contact, they are to contact the school social worker. After the third absence, teachers are asked to refer the student to the school social worker for additional support to the student/family. Social workers and support teams are working to rapidly respond to those not in attendance and use all methods available to connect with students/families. When we are unable to contact a family with known county involvement, we contact the caseworker or partner with our county attorney’s office which receives educational neglect referrals to review contact information. We have district staff making home visits. When chronic absences continue to accrue, school staff would follow guidelines established prior to Distance Learning to report educational neglect or truancy. A division at the county attorney’s office reviews education neglect referrals and identifies which ones will be forwarded to Child Protection and sends a letter offering support from a community agency to those not sent onto Child Protection.
Educators, caregivers, relatives and neighbors are urged to lovingly and supportively check in with children and families. Listen to how they are doing and what they are up to. In conversations with families and students, acknowledge this is a challenging time. Offer words of encouragement. While educators should not engage in counseling, checking in with families can offer adults a sense of connection and access to resources. School counselors, family support workers, social workers, nurses and other support staff have been working tirelessly to connect families and unaccompanied youth to basic needs, and to offer them critical resources.
HISD nurses have been instructed to call students to check on their welfare and safety. The district’s wraparound services specialists and social and emotional learning staff members are also making regular contact with our students and their families.
In the event a disclosure of child abuse or neglect does occur, please remember we are mandated reporters and must follow the SPS policies and procedures for reporting. Eventually, when students return to school, we may see an uptick in disclosures. Counseling and support staff are already discussing ways to prepare for this. Even as you work remotely, you have access to a team of professionals who can help you navigate difficult situations. Your school administrator should be your first stop for guidance.
Teachers are advised to contact their school social worker to consult and determine if reporting is necessary.
HISD continues to follow regular procedures for reporting suspected cases of child abuse in its student population.
Yes, we follow state guidelines on compulsory education and refer to our local county agency when unexcused absences continue after parent/guardian notification.