The COVID-19 Pandemic: Safety Concerns Within
an Extended School Community
In this installment of Creating Communities of Courage: School Climate in the Time of COVID-19, we address rising concerns about school safety issues and offer some Best Practices. We also offer resources to support safety for our extended school communities of educators, students, families, and others. In the coming weeks, we will offer further guidance on Engagement, Inclusion and Equity.

NOTE: This installment of Creating Communities of Courage in the Time of COVID-19 was written by Randy Ross, MS., MA., Senior Consultant and Advisor to NSCC. This is an abbreviated version of the full article, which can be found here . A full list of Safety resources is provided here .
Our school communities (staff, students, families, and community members) are in extremely challenging times. As a result, we are unfortunately intensifying existing and creating anew other conditions that threaten our social, emotional, and physical safety. In light of these circumstances, we must continue to protect school community members from both COVID-19 and its consequences, especially those who are most vulnerable. We must promote safety and prevent harm, intentionally, knowing that the pandemic and social inequities are comorbid conditions which exacerbate each other. Disparate access to resources and supports means less protection for many against the physical, social and emotional traumas inherent to the pandemic and more exposure to stressors that increase the potential for physical and psychological harm at home and in public. Just as medical professionals must triage patients right now, schools must prioritize outreach to students most at risk for physical or psychological trauma and be prepared to target more intensive or complex supports to them and their families.
Three BIG Ideas
1. Dangers to students’ physical and social emotional security continue, albeit differently than before.

2. Rules and Norms are still needed.

3. Social Media and other online communication are both lifelines and dangers to safety.
Best Practices
1. Dangers to students’ physical/social emotional security continue, but differently than before.

The lack of face-to-face school interaction reduces physical bullying, yet, the likelihood of physical and sexual child abuse, intimate partner violence, and sibling abuse is greater than before. Reports of child abuse have decreased since children have been away from the primary mandated reporters in their lives – their teachers. Meanwhile, calls to domestic violence hotlines have surged. Given the co-occurrence between the two forms of abuse , it is likely that child abuse is also on the rise. Mental health supports, resiliency activities, social connections through relationships, and enhancing youth and family engagement all remain crucial guardians of social-emotional security. A few more practice reminders are below.

Best Practice Reminders:

  • Observe signs of potential child abuse. While educators may no longer observe the signs of possible child abuse as they would in daily contact with students here are some ways to address it:
  • Counselors should maintain contact with students in families where there was evidence or concern about potential abuse previous to the shutdown.
  • Seek guidance from your school social worker or counselors on how to address your concerns about a student or family.
  • Offer social emotional guidance and resources to help manage the stress, especially in single parent or multi-generational homes.
  • Use school staff, such as bus drivers or counselors, delivering meals to at-risk homes to check on students while safely keeping physical distance.

  • Understand how the current stress impacts social emotional wellness and mental health issues. Both the Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS) and Trauma Sensitive Schools approach remain crucial tools in this regard. Students already identified will most likely continue to need regular support from counselors, special education and other teachers.

  • Expect that vulnerable families may need greater or different types of support. Strengthen the role of Family Engagement Coordinators, School Counselors, Psychologists, Social Workers, Nurses and other non-certified staff to connect with families and assess needs. Create or find existing ways to coordinate community-based resources to meet needs.

  • Learn about strengths/challenges of your students’ families, especially more vulnerable families, while respecting privacy. For excellent tips on strengths-based, culturally competent outreach strategies, to include sample text language and phone scripts, go here.
  • Identify students whose vulnerabilities were not significant enough to be identified previously, but are now in greater need of additional supports. Signs of this might be students/families not engaging with school staff who reach out to them, not attending online sessions, and/or not completing assigned work. Direct observations may occur during food drop-off at homes or food pick-ups at various sites. Frontline staff engaging with students and families should receive training on what signs to look for. Provide parents simple ways to report any concerns about their children’s social emotional wellness.

  • Stay positive and low-pressure. When interacting with students and families, encourage them to focus on what they can control. Help them to see and name their personal, familial or community strengths and consider how those strengths will help them – or others – in getting through this crisis. Remember that pressure applied to students becomes pressure applied to caregivers. Coordinate and monitor the demands being placed on students and families, and be willing to roll back on those demands if it means ensuring a healthier and safer home environment. 
2. Rules and Norms to promote safety are still needed but may need adaptation

We are in uncharted territory about which rules make sense now. Even as we are learning to adjust to our  new realities , we must take the time to reflect on our shared norms and whether there needs to be changes or at least shifts in emphasis.
Best Practices Reminders:
  • Enforce the same in-school rules you had for preventing sexual and racial harassment. Many in-school behavior rules intended to prevent sexual or racial harassment must still be enforced. Dehumanizing language can be even worse online because of the larger potential audience.

  • Develop or adopt alternative individual consequences for students who engage in hurtful or harassing language or behaviors. For example, you can require a student who has violated an online behavioral rule to read a relevant article or book and write a summary and a reflection, offer an apology, etc. A counselor may be brought in for further conversation.

  • Use Restorative Practices (RP) to process harmful behaviors and emphasize restoring community over punishment. Restorative Circles can be held through Zoom or Google Hangouts. The key questions for RP are: Who has been harmed and how might they experience further harm? What do they need? Who is responsible for mitigating and repairing these harms?

  • Integrate SEL into curriculum adaptable for online or distance learning. For instance, empathy is often named as an example of SEL. Curriculum content explicitly teaching empathy, whether in Language Arts, Social Studies, or even Science, may reduce disrespectful behavior. CASEL, SEL4US, Committee for Children, and individual program providers offer explicit guidance for such integration. There are also apps to helps students develop general and self-awareness for SEL competencies.
3. Social Media and other online interaction are both lifelines and dangers to safety.

The internet contains opportunities for positive, exciting learning and significant dangers . With students no longer in the same physical space, face-to-face bullying/harassment is diminished. However, anecdotal reports indicate that cyberbullying is increasing, including bias-based bullying and hate speech. Especially during crises, blaming one group or another increases, leads to dehumanizing language such as naming COVID-19, the “ Chinese Virus .” Also, with students online for hours each day , there is a potential for interaction with sexual predators. With unrestricted “web-surfing,” students may encounter websites promoting hate speech or pornography. However, unless social media is being misused to harm others, cutting off access may intensify the social isolation that can lead to depression, suicidal ideation, and other serious mental health conditions.
Best Practices Reminders:

  • Engage students to engage each other! Engagement is critical to mental health. Campaigns like #Digital4Good promote youth engagement beyond online safety.

  • Examine school protocol for digital citizenship/media literacy carefully to see if it covers the wide range of current challenges. More targeted, intensive curricula may be needed at this time. Common Sense Education offers a free program. Digital Citizenship Activities, such as those from the Cyberbullying Research Center, offer a less time intensive approach.

  • Don’t forget the fundamentals to bullying prevention even while our interactions are online:
  • Define the behavior
  • Identify and explain the harm it causes
  • Clarify reporting mechanisms
  • Take responsibility to intervene, educate, and assert consequences
  • Empower targets and bystanders to become upstanders
  • Set or reaffirm expectations, and make sure they embody community, respect, empathy, and caring.

  • Do not wait until an incident occurs in your school community before taking preventive, educational steps to deal with biased-based bullying/harassment. COVID-19 racism, particularly experienced by Asian Americans since the pandemic, is a serious concern calling for multiple responses. Social Studies and Language Arts teachers should incorporate curricula to engage students in discussion of racism. Groups, including, Facing History and Ourselves and Teaching Tolerance, are providing resources to support these efforts.

  • Explicitly remind students of the dangers of sexual exploitation by online pedophiles. Technology teachers can provide parents with basic instruction to change security settings, check profiles, keep devices in common spaces, see what their children post online, etc. 
NSCC at Ramapo for Children Supports
Administer a school climate survey to understand the health of your school community and plan for next year now. We offer custom questions related to COVID-19 responses, remote learning, and more.

The updated version of NSCC at Ramapo’s School Climate Leadership Certification is ready for enrollment this summer. It features distance learning, customized coaching and access to a national learning community of like-minded leaders.

For more information, contact .
Virtual coaching and PD Offerings Through Ramapo Training

  • Strategies for using remote learning to deepen adult social-emotional skills and build healthy relationships
  • Designing supports for young people struggling with engagement, participation and attendance in virtual learning
  • Designing virtual systems to support connections within your community, including staff circles, small group reflections, advisory conversation prompts and intentional moments for joy and laughter.
  • Facilitating opportunities for adults to develop behavior plans and strategic interventions
  • Planning for next year: re-thinking and designing programs and protocols such as advisory, Restorative Justice Action Teams, behavioral supports, staff onboarding, student orientation and more.
  • Coaching conversations with parent coordinators and other community liaisons to support the creation of outreach and support plans
  • Small group community circles for parents and caregivers
  • A series of 1-hour videos to support parents and caregivers working with their children at home

For more information, visit Ramapo for Children .
About the Author

Randy Ross, M.S., M.A., is Senior Consultant at the National School Climate Center at Ramapo for Children. Currently, Randy is Project Manager for NSCC’s “Empowering Youth Engaging Schools” (EYES) initiative. She has over 45 years experience as a teacher, administrator, coach, dialogue and professional development facilitator. For the past 25 years, she has worked with communities, school districts, and state education leaders on equity issues in school climate, discipline, social-emotional learning, community engagement, interracial dialogue, and bullying/harassment policies and practices. Since 2014, as a consultant with NSCC, Randy has engaged in state and local level projects in Minnesota, Illinois, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina. Prior to working with NSCC, Randy was Senior Equity Consultant at the New England Equity Assistance Center at Brown University (2005-2014) and Program Development Specialist at the New Jersey Office of Bias Crime and Community Relations within the Attorney General’s Office (1999-2005). In that position, she developed and led “New Jersey Care About Bullying,” a statewide initiative. Randy is also on the SEL4MA Steering Committee and a National Advisor to SEL4US.
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