Schools are one of the main safety nets for children in relation to abuse and neglect. This is evidenced by the fact that school personnel are responsible for almost 20 per cent of all notifications to child welfare agencies. As schools move to various modes of remote learning during the COVID-19 pandemic, there is a risk that child safety will be compromised due to decreased visibility by schools over students who are being, or are at risk of being, abused or neglected. Furthermore, during remote learning, students may have a diminished ability to disclose concerns about their own or their peers’ safety to school staff.
As was discussed in School Governance last week, schools continue to have a non-delegable duty of care to students while remote learning and teaching is occurring. All the obligations and expectations that apply to staff to ensure that students are safe at school continue to apply in the new remote learning environment. In fact, it may be more important now than ever before.
This article will consider the risks posed to child safety by the move to remote learning and identify what actions schools can take to ensure that the safety net for children remains intact.
Why is there an increased risk to child safety during remote learning?
In just a few months, COVID-19 has drastically affected the lives of children and families. School closures and movement restrictions have disrupted children’s routines and support systems. Parents/caregivers are dealing with the stress not only of caring for and educating children who are now home from school, but also the stress of potential job loss, economic hardship and health concerns associated with COVID-19.
ln these circumstances of social isolation, economic uncertainty and restricted personal movement, children are in a particularly vulnerable position. With many families now working from home, or restricted to their homes, there may be more conflict within households. High-stress and high-conflict home environments increase the likelihood of children observing or experiencing domestic violence and abuse. This phenomenon is well documented – according to UNICEF, increased rates of child abuse and neglect have occurred during previous public health emergencies and other crises. Further, other countries have already reported a significant rise in domestic violence reports to police and in calls, texts and emails to domestic violence helplines. In this climate, school personnel may be the only people that children can reach out to, particularly if they are confined to their home.
There are also child safety risks associated with students spending more time on the internet, if that is how a school’s remote learning is being delivered. A variety of online safety issues may arise, including cyberbullying, exposure to inappropriate content and unwanted online contact / grooming. These concerns are particularly relevant if students are not being closely monitored by a parent/caregiver during remote learning.
What actions can schools take?
Given the vulnerability of children during this time, it is important that schools take active steps to protect the welfare and safety of their students.
In relation to students, schools should:
- Have an induction course or provide age appropriate information for students about how to “attend school” remotely, including information about the code of conduct that students and staff need to comply with, and how these apply when working from home. Clear expectations need to be set about respectful behaviour online.
- Provide resources for students about their rights to safety when engaging in remote learning.
- Provide age appropriate access to information about child abuse and neglect, including issues that may arise when working from home.
- Make clear who students can contact if they need help/support for personal issues and ensure that there is a system in place to enable disclosures by students to the school (e.g. an email or telephone hotline to the school’s child safety officers).
- Provide school-approved ways for students to remain connected with their peers during remote learning, and ensure that students know about these and how to use them appropriately.
- Seek feedback from students about child safety issues during the transition to remote learning and as remote learning evolves over time.
In relation to staff, schools should:
- Remind staff that mandatory reporting to child welfare agencies / police still applies in the remote learning environment.
- Review/ensure codes of conduct are able to apply during remote learning and consider what amendments may be required (e.g. consider guidance on 1:1 video conferencing and other 1:1 communications, using approved communication tools only, applicable dress code etc).
- Provide guidance to staff on identifying signs of harm during remote learning and the different ways students may express concerns/distress or disclose harm.
- Ensure that there is a system in place to assist staff in dealing with child safety issues that they may suspect or witness (e.g. an email or telephone hotline to the school’s child safety officers).
- Seek feedback from staff about child safety issues during the transition to remote learning and as remote learning evolves over time.
In relation to parents/caregivers, schools should:
- Communicate the school’s approach to child safety during remote learning, including in particular:
- the code of conduct that students and staff need to comply with, and how these apply when working from home
- the school’s approved online communication tools and any particular conduct requirements that apply to these.
- Provide resources to parents/caregivers in relation to online safety for their child during remote learning (e.g. using parental controls, turning on privacy settings etc).
- Encourage parents/caregivers to monitor their child while they are engaging in remote learning.
- Seek feedback from parents/caregivers about child safety issues during the transition to remote learning and as remote learning evolves over time.
As staff and students transition into remote learning environments, child safety remains paramount. There are many aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic that schools cannot control. However, one thing schools can do is to ensure that they uphold child safe policies and practices in the remote learning environment. This will ensure that the safety net provided by schools continues to operate and protect students from harm.
Deborah De Fina
Deborah recently completed five years working with the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse where she assisted the Royal Commission to establish the Private Session process and subsequently managed its legal aspects. Prior to working with the Royal Commission, Deborah had her own successful consulting practice where she specialised in the statutory child protection system, legal issues facing children and vulnerable people, and legal aid. She also spent more than nine years at Legal Aid NSW, as a child protection solicitor, Senior Solicitor and then Solicitor in Charge, Child Protection. Deborah holds a Juris Doctorate from the Columbia University School of Law, a Master of International Affairs from the Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs and a Diploma in Law from Sydney University.
Lucinda Hughes is a Legal Research Assistant at CompliSpace. She is currently studying a Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Laws at the University of Sydney.