Hidden child maltreatment: One more reason to vaccinate teachers and open schools

With the end of the holiday break, about half the nation’s public students are not returning to school buildings but instead are continuing with virtual education. The impacts of school building closures on education, the economy and student mental health have been widely covered. But there is another consequence of virtual education that has not been as widely reported–the loss of the protective eye on children that their teachers and other school staff provide. Now that the COVID vaccine is becoming available, it is urgent that we get teachers vaccinated and students back to school.

In the wake of the coronavirus emergency beginning last March, almost all public school buildings in the nation closed, with few if any reopening before the end of the term. Many systems reopened buildings for fully in-person education or “hybrid” (partially virtual) models in August or September, and others opened their buildings later. As of Labor Day, 62 percent of U.S. public school students were attending school virtually, but only 38 percent were still online-only by early November, according to a company called Burbio, which monitors 1,200 school districts around the country. However, a spike in COVID cases beginning in November resulted in many systems returning to virtual education, with 53 percent of students attending virtually by January 4, 2021. Burbio expects a decrease in this percentage over the next six weeks as systems open up again after the virus spikes abate.

Almost immediately after the school closures last spring, reports began rolling in about the failure of online education to reach many students, especially those who were poor and most at risk of school failure. Some students lacked computers or internet access; others were unable to engage remotely in education. There is deep concern about the long-term impact of school building closures on young people’s academic performance, particularly for those at most risk of poor outcomes. With the passage of time, more information began to flow in about other consequences to children of missing school, such as worrisome impacts on their mental health.

But many child welfare professionals and advocates have long shared another concern. They worried about unseen abuse and neglect among the children stuck at home with increasingly stressed parents and not being seen by teachers and other adults. This is especially concerning for younger children, who are less likely to seek help on their own. And indeed, as soon as schools closed around the country last March due to the COVID pandemic, almost every state reported large drops in calls to their child abuse and neglect hotlines. The loss of reports from teachers (who make one in five of reports nationwide) was probably the major contributor, combined with the loss of reports from other professionals, friends, and family members seeing less of children due to stay-at-home orders and physical distancing.

After the academic year ended, data became available that that allowed comparison of reports, investigations, and findings of maltreatment in the pandemic spring compared to the spring of 2019. These analyses showed a large difference between reports, investigations, and substantiations of maltreatment in 2020 relative to 2019, followed by a convergence in data during the summer when schools are normally closed. In our local blog, we analyzed data from the District of Columbia Child and Family Services Agency (CFSA). For this post we used our DC data and information from three other jurisdictions for which data was readily available: New York City, Los Angeles, and Florida.[1]

In the District of Columbia, schooling has remained virtual since the onset of the pandemic, with a small number of students joining their virtual classrooms from school buildings while supervised by non-teaching staff. Figure One shows the number of reports received at the CFSA hotline in January through September 2019 and 2020. The contrast between the two years is obvious. In the “typical” year of 2019, the number of reports increased every month until May,[2] dropped to a much lower level in July and August when schools were closed, and then bounced up in September after schools reopened. The pandemic year of 2020 looked very different. The number of calls fell from February to March with the closure of schools, followed by a much larger drop in April, and stayed fairly flat until a modest rise in September with the opening of school. It’s as if summer vacation started in March, with a slight increase of reports when virtual school started again. In every month of the pandemic, the number of hotline calls in 2020 was considerably less than its counterpart in 2019. The total number of hotline calls received between March and June and in September (roughly the period affected by COVID-19) fell from 7916 in 2019 to 4681 in FY 2020, a decrease of 40.8 percent.

Source: CFSA Data Dashboard, https://cfsadashboard.dc.gov/, data analyzed by Child Welfare Monitor DC.

New York City data show a similar picture, as shown in a report from the Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) comparing hotline calls in 2020 to those in previous years. It is clear that 2020 is the outlier, with reports in 2017 through 2019 displaying similar seasonal patterns. In contrast to the previous years, reports fell in March 2020 with the schools closing on March 16 and then plunged in April during the first full month of school closure. There was a slight uptick in May and then reports remained basically flat before jumping up in October (when school buildings reopened) and falling again in November after schools closed again on November 19. ACS does not provide the numbers for each month but for January through November of 2020, there were 46,375 reports compared to 59,539 during that period in 2019. That is a difference of 22 percent; this difference would clearly be greater if we were able to look only at the weeks when schools were closed due to COVID-19.

Figure Two

Source: NYC Children, Flash Monthly Indicators Report, December 2020, available from https://www1.nyc.gov/assets/acs/pdf/data-analysis/flashReports/2020/12.pdf

Data from Los Angeles, where school buildings have not yet reopened, tell a similar story–a decline in reports in March after the pandemic emergency and school closures and then a big drop in April, the first full month when schools were closed. Referrals remained below the previous year for the rest of 2020, though the difference narrowed. The total number of referrals was 44,959 in March through November of 2020, compared to 61,515 in the same period of 2021–a decrease of 26.9 percent, and the decrease would be greater if only the weeks of school were included.

Figure Three

Data from Los Angeles Department of Children and Family Services, https://dcfs.lacounty.gov/resources/data-and-monthly-fact-sheets/, analyzed by Child Welfare Monitor

It is interesting to look at Florida, where the governor mandated that school buildings open in the fall semester. Florida data for last spring looks a lot like that for DC, New York City, and Los Angeles. But referrals almost matched 2019 during June and July, with the onset of summer break. August 2020 referrals were slightly lower than those in August 2019, perhaps because many schools opened virtually, but the gap narrowed again in September, October and November as more schools opened in person. And the shape of the fall curves was nearly identical in both years, with referrals rising in October.

Figure Four

Data from Florida Department of Children and Families, https://www.myflfamilies.com/programs/childwelfare/dashboard/intakes-received.shtml?Landing%20Page%20InvRec=2, analyzed by Child Welfare Monitor

Not everybody agrees that the loss of reports from school staff is a problem. Teachers have sometimes been criticized for making too many reports, and some analysts have suggested that the COVID closures might serve a useful function by eliminating frivolous or inappropriate reports. Indeed, some analyses have shown that the reports that are being made tend to be more serious or high-risk, suggesting that more of the less serious reports are being suppressed. If there was a large increase in the percentage of reports accepted for investigation or found to be substantive, there might be less reason to worry. But this does not appear to be the case.

  • In the District of Columbia, as shown in Table One at the bottom of the article, the percentage of reports accepted for investigation was slightly greater in 2020 than in the previous year. But as Figure Five shows, this percentage increase in accepted reports was not enough to substantially narrow the large gap between the number of accepted reports in the two years. Both the number of hotline calls accepted for investigation and the number of substantiated investigations showed the same sharp decrease as the number of reports to the hotline.
  • Similarly, the number of investigations in New York City showed the same precipitous drop from 2019 to 2020 as did the number of reports, as Figure Seven shows. And the percentage of investigations that “showed some credible evidence of abuse or neglect” in January through September 2020 was actually one point lower than that in the same period of 2019.
  • In Los Angeles, the percentage of referrals accepted for investigation actually declined during the pandemic, as indicated in Table Two below. So the year-to-year gap in number of referrals accepted for investigation (see Figure Seven) was even greater than the gap in total referrals. (Los Angeles does not provide data on substantiated reports.)
  • In Florida, as indicated in Table Three, there was a very slight increase in the percent of of intakes accepted for investigation during March-May 2020 compared to the same period in 2019. But as Figure Eight shows, the total numbers were much lower than in the previous year. (Florida does not provide data on the number of reports that were substantiated.)

It is clear from data in the four jurisdictions described here that reports to child abuse hotlines fell steeply in all four jurisdictions after the pandemic school closures, absolutely and relative to the same months of the previous year. In Florida, where schools reopened in September, reports increased to almost the level of the year before. It seems indisputable that measures imposed to fight COVID-19 were behind these changes and highly likely that school building closures were a large factor behind the reporting reductions. Moreover, as reports decreased, so did the numbers of reports investigated and substantiated, thus dashing any hope that only frivolous reports were being weeded out by the school closures.

Now that a vaccine is available, some Governors in states that have not reopened schools have proposed plans to prioritize teachers for vaccines and finally reopen buildings. Governor Gavin Newsom of California has offered a reopening plan including prioritization of school staff for vaccinations throughout spring 2021. West Virginia Governor Jim Justice has announced his plan to open pre-K, elementary, and middle schools for in-person learning on Tuesday, Jan 19. High school students will return to in-person school only in less-heavily-infected counties. Justice announced that the state will vaccinate all teachers and school personnel over the next two to three weeks as part of Phase One of the state’s vaccination plan.

Data from around the country clearly show that child welfare agencies received fewer reports, conducted fewer investigations, and made fewer findings of child abuse or neglect in times and places where schools were virtual. This fact adds to the many other reasons to open all closed school buildings as soon as possible. Opposition from teachers and their unions has been a major reason for keeping schools virtual. It is understandable that teachers were reluctant to return to buildings. But now, availability of vaccines makes it possible for schools to reopen throughout the country without endangering teachers–as long as all teachers are offered the vaccine before returning to classrooms. The high costs to to students of closed school buildings, among which undetected abuse should be included, mean that we should not wait any longer to bring students back to school in person.

[1]: These jurisdictions were chosen as large state or county child welfare systems that had readily available about reports, investigations and substantiations. Many other large jurisdictions do not post such data.

[2]:DC’s pattern of increasing reports from January through May is different from the other jurisdictions and may be related to its law requiring schools to report educational neglect when a student accumulates ten unexcused absences in a school year.

Table One: Hotline Calls Accepted for Investigation, District of Columbia

Source: https://cfsadashboard.dc.gov/; Data analyzed by Child Welfare Monitor DC

Figure Five

Source: https://cfsadashboard.dc.gov/; Data analyzed by Child Welfare Monitor DC

Figure Six

Source: NYC Children, Flash Monthly Indicators Report, December 2020, available from https://www1.nyc.gov/assets/acs/pdf/data-analysis/flashReports/2020/12.pdf

Table Two

Source: https://cfsadashboard.dc.gov/; Data analyzed by Child Welfare Monitor DC

Figure Seven

Table Three: Intakes Accepted for Investigation, Florida

Source: https://www.myflfamilies.com/programs/childwelfare/dashboard/intakes-received.shtml?Landing%20Page%20InvRec=1; Data analyzed by Child Welfare Monitor

Figure Eight

Data from https://www.myflfamilies.com/programs/childwelfare/dashboard/intakes-received.shtml?Landing%20Page%20InvRec=1; Data analyzed by Child Welfare Monitor

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