COVID-19 Related Implications in Education

The internet and online tools have expanded opportunities for learning by enabling the creation of more models of learning and reducing previously limiting geographic and other significant barriers to learning.  Online learning also brings students and teachers out of the classroom and into more private spaces, potentially blurring boundaries that conventional classroom settings establish.  While the hope is that the changes schools have had to make because of the Covid-19 pandemic will not extend beyond this academic year, it’s essential to consider how these current adaptations create an increased risk for students and educators. It is likely that schools will adopt new technology going forward to offer online platforms for learning in some capacity. Therefore, we anticipate that these findings will remain relevant beyond the pandemic.

Sexual misconduct and abuse can occur in any place and at any time, which includes online spaces. This can make it difficult to identify because misconduct and abuse are often done in private spaces and may be done using phones and computers. This document is designed to help you understand where those risks are so you can address them. 

What is Online Sexual Misconduct and Abuse?

Perhaps the most obvious thing to consider is the fact that much more teaching and learning is being done online.  Classes are online.  Meetings are online. Students are meeting together to work on projects online, and these interactions are conducted throughout the day and night.  So increased online misconduct is an ongoing and significant concern for schools to consider. 

“Online sexual exploitation and abuse is when one person manipulates another person to get them to do something sexual — it’s an ongoing cycle of emotional and psychological abuse. This can include things such as forcing or blackmailing someone into to sending sexual photos/videos of themselves online or to perform sexual acts over webcam.” [READ What is online sexual exploitation and abuse?] Not only does this have the potential to create emotional and psychological abuse for the victim, but the online transfer of sexually explicit photos of minors is considered child pornography and can lead to serious legal consequences as well. Online sexual misconduct is not limited to adult-student contact; it also includes adult to adult and student to student online interactions. Most schools have acceptable use policies that articulate their rules regarding online behavior, sexting, and more. 

Online Sexual Misconduct and Abuse includes but is not limited to: 

  • Asking anything sexual in nature 
  • Sending nude photos or flashing 
  • Making any comment in a sexual manner or about sexual activity
  • Exposing a person to pornographic material 

When sexual misconduct and abuse occur online it presents with some unique signs and symptoms compared to the signs and symptoms of sexual misconduct that occur offline. In order to spot online sexual misconduct, communities should be looking out for different behaviors in online usage as well as changing trends in technological privacy from students. These include but are not limited to spending increased time online, attempting to hide their online usage from peers, becoming agitated when they lose control of their technology, becoming possessive of their technology, not being able to communicate what they are doing online to others, vague explanations of new friends they have made and more. 

Signs of online misconduct include but are not limited to: [Warning Signs a Young Person May Be a Target of Online Sexual Abuse]

  • Spending increased time online.
  • Becoming increasingly secretive about their online activity.
  • Hiding what is on their screen.
  • Unable to speak openly about their online activity.
  • Being possessive of their technology.
  • Becoming agitated when there is a lack of privacy when they are online.
  • Leaving the house/dorm for periods of time with no explanation. 
  • Vague explanations of friends they are talking to online.

How to Reduce Risk 

It is therefore important for schools, parents, and students to work together to make sure everyone understands what is appropriate and what is not, signs to look for, and how to address it if there are concerns.  Students, in particular, need to understand the implications and long-term consequences and what to do if they believe an issue should be reported because it is often the students who will see changes in their peers’ behaviors.   

  • Protect student privacy:
    • Control student and teacher usage of online platforms by providing school-issued passwords. 
    • Train teachers in online privacy protections including how to limit student access to screen sharing and chat functions, and how to respond to online misconduct. 
    • Make sure online classes are secure and any recordings are stored and archived properly. 
    • Prohibit posting or sharing of student images or videos on social media without permission. 
    • Encourage the use of approved virtual backgrounds instead of viewing the child’s room/environment.
    • Get legal advice to determine whether to use consent forms for remote learning or recording of classes and student images.

Protecting Students

Protecting students includes providing structure around expectations for behavior. Identify all applicable rules, then educate students and parents so they understand their roles and what is expected. In addition to providing policies and rules in writing, consider hosting an orientation to online learning. That way all students and their families are on the same page.

  • Establish a code of conduct. In addition to reiterating that your in-person rules regarding behavior still apply, add other provisions to address online interactions. Include the Title IX policy where applicable, including details about the reporting process. Create rules specific to online classroom interactions; include policies about student attire, use of virtual backgrounds, screen name requirements, chat or screen sharing permissions, and rules about recording or sharing screenshots of classes.
  • Prohibit harassment, discrimination, and hate speech. Reiterate that school policies against harassment and discrimination remain. Review whether your cyberbullying and cyber harassment policies need updates or should be better publicized. Continue enforcing all conduct rules, even with misconduct happening over a remote learning tool.
  • Focus on rules about technology use. Educate students and parents about your technology and internet use policies so they are not surprised when the policies are enforced.

Some techniques to maintain a safe remote learning environment [Guidance for Title IX Administrators During COVID-19]

  • Require all students to have neutral video backgrounds.
  • Disabling student video or screen sharing when it does not aid the learning process.
  • Continuously monitor the chat rooms within a remote classroom.
    • Both the group chat and private messages. 
  • Create clear standards and rules for video conferencing. 
  • Establish transparent modes for reporting harassment or misconduct that occurs online.
  • Establish support networks for those who have experienced harassment or misconduct online.
  • Recording all meetings whether they are full class sessions or office hour videos for the school’s record. 
  • Creating an accountability system for office hour (one-on-one) sessions. 
    • Requiring students and teachers to log sessions. 

The Covid-19 pandemic has created an environment where children may be forced into closer contact when there is abuse happening at home. For many, school is a place of safety where they can escape their abuser. The pandemic affected the availability of health services and increased isolation. Therefore, it is critical that your employees are trained in recognizing signs and symptoms of sexual misconduct and abuse. Notify and remind employees and, especially mandated reporters, of their obligation for student safety. For more information, please see Learning Courage’s page on “Signs and Symptoms.”

Children have a difficult enough time navigating online behavior and social media. The effects of online harassment can have devastating consequences. [Impact of online sexual harassment] The opportunity for misconduct, abuse, and harassment has grown exponentially. With the recent pandemic, teachers and students moving to “distant learning” have introduced yet another layer. Your school should set very clear expectations, to both students and employees, on proper boundaries and behaviors. There is no federal law on cyberbullying (which some online sexual abuse falls under), so it is up to each individual state. Make sure your school has consulted with your legal counsel and reviewed your state laws to help set your policy. [Cyberbullying Laws at the State Level]

Pandemic Specific Restorative Justice

Restorative justice measures can be a useful tool for helping children readjust to a classroom after long breaks or major changes in how they are taught. We have included a list of resources designed for school communities to help with these transitions: 

RJ activities for kids returning to school after covid

National Conflict Resolution Center Scenarios

Restorative Practices in the San Diego School District | NCRC


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