Virtual School’s Effects: The Child Abuse Pandemic
Written by Megan Baranuk
Children across the country are participating in an online version of elementary, middle, and high school. This version of education can have harmful effects, especially on children who live with abusers, neglectful parents, or are in harmful situations.
The pandemic has affected the education system in a myriad of complex ways, but perhaps the most dangerous change has been the need for virtual learning. These are conducted over Zoom or in otherwise virtual classrooms, but they do not satisfy the social needs of a developing child, nor do they satisfy necessary time with a teacher or trusted adult.
Children in elementary, middle- and high-school normally have access to guidance counselors, and teachers are able to pick up on signs that a student may be struggling at home or be in an otherwise dangerous situation (Neal). Due to the pandemic and virtual learning, time with teachers and other adults are extremely limited. Children who are in a toxic home situation may struggle in reaching out to a trusted adult, and teachers remain oblivious behind a screen.
Domestic violence has increased since COVID-19’s arrival, and experts suspect that far more cases go unseen, as victims are unable to or are afraid to report or check into the emergency room. The CDC has reported a dramatic increase in weekly emergency room visits related to child abuse. Though there have been preliminary reports finding an increased number of child abuse-related injuries in the emergency rooms, reports on abuse and neglect have actually decreased 20%–70% (CDC). The CDC attributes this lack of reporting directly to the decreased in-person interactions with teachers, counselors, and other trusted adults. Families with a history of abuse and other issues, such as alcohol and/or drug problems are considered at-risk families, and these children were monitored more closely during classes (Neal). With virtual learning, this feat is much more difficult, and children are at home with abusive and/or neglectful parents all day, whereas during a regular school day, these children would be physically away from their houses for up to nine hours. Children would also have the opportunity to stay on school grounds for longer periods of time if they participated in sports or other extracurriculars. Furthermore, teachers are mandated reporters, meaning that if there is any reason to suspect abuse or neglect, they are legally required to report their suspicions to child protective services. Without being able to physically see a student or check in without extra complications, identifying children in dangerous situations can prove difficult.
Many public schools offer free and reduced-cost lunch programs, which offer free or discounted meals to children of low-income families. Though some schools offer a drive-up program in which students can still redeem lunch, some schools have forgone the program completely because of COVID-19. These programs provide low-income children with the knowledge that they will be able to eat when they attend school, and underprivileged children may be neglected in their dietary needs as a result, contributing to compromised immune systems and a higher risk for developing COVID-19, among other illnesses.
Children who are already at risk for abuse face an even greater danger that teachers cannot see. While these children are stuck at home due to virtual learning, their parents are either virtually employed, or unemployed, growing restless and the possibility of further drug and/or alcohol abuse climbs. Social and economic changes have been shown to worsen substance issues in users (NCBI). The CDC released a report in late June that showed anxiety disorder symptoms as three times more reported than in 2019, depressive disorder four times more reported, and 13.3% of respondents reported starting or increasing substance abuse (Sparkman). The stressors of a pandemic as well as financial uncertainty, piled on top of taking care of a child can drive a parent to neglect or abuse.
Children who primarily stayed in school and after school programs have suddenly become dependent on their parents’ care far more intensely than in previous years. Because of abusive families’ neglect, overdose deaths in children are climbing, and Cleveland in particular has seen an increase of overdoses in children. Children left with free rein of the house are able to find drugs much easier than they may have in the past. Additionally, police officers and D.E.A. officers often visit schools to educate children on the danger of drugs, but this program will now be primarily online. Neglectful parents may have also been sedating their children instead of taking the time to learn what their child might need, and the death toll in children due to opioids has been on the rise since 2017. Though the official toll for 2020 has yet to be released, the number is expected to jump significantly.
Children who come from families with no previous history of neglect or abuse may face new challenges, as unemployment and financial stress has become prevalent for a majority of Americans. Because of the multifaceted stressors that COVID-19 has inflicted on families, parents may become more likely to neglect or abuse a child in new instances of stress (Neal).
The importance of protecting the future of America has never been more important in the unprecedented era that COVID-19 has brought to families of all compositions and backgrounds. Diligence in checking up on the children and families in your life is imperative to guard against abuse and neglect before a child is fatally threatened.
If you know of any child who who may be in need of help, please visit www.childhelp.org