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In a New Distance-Learning Low, Some Schools Are Calling CPS on ‘Truant’ Families

When schools first announced closures and a shift to online learning, many worried about how this would affect the students who didn’t have computers, mobile devices, or adequate high-speed internet. Cities and school districts scrambled to fix this problem, and more than a month later, it’s still being resolved. But in the meantime, it seems some educators in New York City decided to report parents to child protective services when their children didn’t log into classes.

In the past month, several parents have received child welfare visits from the Administration for Children’s Service, local independent news outlet The City reported. According to the parents’ lawyers, the schools had called the state child abuse and neglect hotline after the children had failed to report for their online classes. In some cases, this occurred even though the parents had been in touch with the Department of Education about having tablets sent to them.

Lawyer Gabriel Freiman described how one of his clients was waiting for a tablet for her kindergartener and had been in touch with the teacher in charge of attendance. “But apparently at the school level, the principal later decided that unless our client also ensured that her son went online for their Google Meets at 9 a.m., he would be locked out,” Freiman said. “And so when he was marked out for three days in a row in early April, the school staff still made a call to the [state hotline] reporting suspected child neglect.”

Another family advocate told The City that schools were threatening to report homeless mothers for child neglect. Still another told the story of a parent having to show evidence of their correspondence with the DOE about getting an iPad.

“People are sort of being told two things, which is: ‘It’s OK to do the best you can. You know, you’re not being expected to do more than what’s possible,’” Freiman said. “And also: ‘If you can’t do the things that were requested, do you know you’ll get a report against you called in.’ … That kind of increased anxiety, in my opinion, is not good for situations that are already incredibly tense for families.”

On the other side of this issue is the fact that it is teachers’ and school administrators’ official responsibility to watch for signs of problems at home, and repeated absence from school can be a sign of abuse or neglect.

“Being able to intervene when we see something concerning and when there is a change in a child’s well-being (they are withdrawn, often upset, always hungry, coming to school dirty or with suspicious marks) provides a safety net for a vulnerable child,” Misha Valencia, a mental health provider who works with at-risk children, wrote in SheKnows earlier this month. “[B]ut now that it has become necessary to close schools and imperative for communities to practice social distancing to slow the spread of COVID-19, these children are at an increased risk for abuse or neglect.”

According to reports across the country, child abuse reports are way down, and that doesn’t mean children aren’t getting hurt. It’s just that only the most severe cases — when kids are so injured they require medical attention — are making their way to protection agencies.

This is why some schools might be over-vigilant in their reporting.

“Our priority is the safety of our students,” DOE spokesperson Nathaniel Styer told the site. “We issued new guidance on how to report educational neglect to reflect the realities of remote learning and ensure schools exhaust options to contact [families]. If an investigation finds a report was due to lack of access to technology, it will be dismissed.”

New York City is supposed to have distributed 247,000 devices to students by this Thursday, and there’s hope that all children across the country will soon be able to join their classmates in online learning. In the meantime, let’s hope that both parents and teachers can work together to do what’s best for the kids.

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