With the COVID-19 pandemic, schools face increased challenges engaging students in learning. Since the beginning of the pandemic, the venues and procedures used to deliver instruction and services have shifted to meet social distancing guidelines. Students have less access to the social supports they rely on to promote emotional and mental well-being, at a time when they are exposed to new sources of stress and adversity. Closed school buildings require administrators to develop new telehealth services to maintain counseling and psychological supports. In these conditions, schools and educators face a very different disciplinary landscape, featuring new expectations of students, new stressors on students, and new forms of student misbehavior.
In recent years, many states and school districts have implemented policy and programmatic changes to reduce schools’ reliance on suspension and expulsion to manage student behavior. Much of this work was prompted by research connecting the use of suspension to an increased risk of student disengagement, school dropout, and entry into the juvenile justice system. Federal data gathered over the last decade (2012 through 2016, in particular) has also shown persistent gaps in students’ risk of suspension and expulsion by race and disability, fueling concerns as to whether schools are providing equitable learning opportunities.
As a result of heightened awareness of this research, many districts have worked to implement and sustain programs and trainings, such as restorative practices, that provide supportive alternatives to exclusionary discipline; however, for many districts, discipline in an era of virtual and socially-distanced learning raises new challenges. We spoke with district administrators in two school districts – Elma Dzanic of Phoenix Union High School District (PUHSD), AZ and Vickie Shoap of Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS), VA – regarding their districts’ experiences surrounding student behavior and school discipline during COVID-19. Both administrators occupy roles dedicated to the implementation of restorative practices, a common intervention schools are implementing to address discipline, in their schools and are familiar with the districts’ efforts to promote supportive approaches to discipline.
What do school districts have to say?
Below we review major themes from our discussions with PUHSD and FCPS administrators. Both school districts have kept schools closed since the spring, with most instruction taking place virtually.
Student behavior in virtual environments. PUHSD and FCPS reported that – from a disciplinary perspective – the COVID-19 pandemic produced unexpected shifts in student behavior. Overall disciplinary incidences decreased in PUHSD. In both communities, the move to virtual learning was marked by the emergence of new behavioral challenges -- including disruption in the virtual classroom, academic disengagement, and absenteeism. Common forms of disruptive behavior included hacking into virtual class sessions, sending inappropriate messages to students and teachers, and cyberbullying. FCPS anticipated that these issues would continue in the new school year as students struggle with high levels of stress, isolation, unmet basic needs (e.g., food access), and trauma.
According to PUHSD, identifying and addressing the root causes of student stress was paramount to meeting the needs of students as instruction resumed this fall. FCPS anticipated that both the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as heightened racial tensions following police officer-involved deaths in various communities, affected student well-being during this period, and that proactive discipline strategies should address both to meet students’ needs.
Assessing and addressing students’ social and emotional needs. With fewer disciplinary incidents to respond to, PUHSD had greater capacity to take a proactive approach to supporting students’ social and emotional well-being. The district prepared a range of interventions, including performing home visits when other forms of engagement are unproductive or unavailable, involving social workers, and organizing restorative conversations. Further, the district launched a taskforce on social and emotional learning (SEL) with a focus on needs that should be addressed before students returned to school. The taskforce produced a toolkit for educators based on a restorative justice framework, as well as a SEL needs assessment for staff and students so that they could determine their needs. Once PUHSD identified student needs, they developed a triage protocol with tailored supports. The district engaged community partners to support students with unmet basic needs and reached out to counselors for students unconnected to any adults on campus. Students experiencing technological challenges received support from the districts’ information technology office. For the 400 students that didn’t respond to the needs assessment, the district initiated direct, one-on-one outreach.
Student-adult relationships and engagement. In PUHSD, teachers who were able to effectively engage students virtually were those who were already connected to their students when they walked into the classroom. With the virtual format, teachers must double their efforts to promote student engagement as it is harder for students to stay focused online.
Implementing restorative practices and trauma-informed practices virtually. Administrators spoke to the difficulties of promoting supportive discipline practices in virtual spaces, especially as students continued to experience feelings of stress and disconnection. FCPS made clear that, to implement restorative circles and conferences with fidelity and consistent with best practice, circles should be held in-person. However, FCPS has begun developing tips and guidelines to facilitate the use of virtual circles. In addition to restorative practices, FCPS offers virtual trainings organized by social workers to help teachers identify trauma and how it may manifest during the pandemic.
Lifting up student voices, particularly for students of color. FCPS noted that Black students in FCPS had recently shared that they did not felt seen or heard in their communities, particularly on issues of racial justice. In response, FCPS has expanded their work on restorative practice to integrate racial justice. Further, they are now supporting students to implement student-led restorative circles and providing training to students to lead circles to talk about racial injustice. FCPS anticipates that this new practice could result in some policy shift – students in every school are asked to share key takeaways with administrators.
What do experts think?
Based on the experiences of educators in the field, there are lessons to be learned from these districts as schools navigate student discipline in the “new normal.”
Use trauma-informed approaches that meet specific, identified needs of students. In recent years, policymaker interest in discipline reform has been heightened by research on childhood adversity, and the implications of child trauma on learning and behavior. Meanwhile, students may be returning to physical and virtual classrooms with additional trauma as they struggle with the effects of the pandemic and racial injustice sweeping the nation. A trauma-informed approach supports students through stressful situations and helps educators understand that the current reality requires that schools implement trauma-informed strategies to directly address how students experience both racial injustice and COVID-19. Taking a comprehensive approach to addressing trauma-inducing issues will meet the mental health needs of students. Staff may need both initial and ongoing training on identifying trauma, relationship building and student engagement, and addressing the social and emotional needs of students.
Take proactive steps to address how COVID-19 and racial tensions have influenced student trauma and well-being. The effects of COVID-19 and systemic racial inequity are intertwined when we consider how students experience trauma. Communities of color have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19 as a result of systemic inequities within the nation’s healthcare systems and workforce.
Relationships and connections are critical to engage and maintain relationships with students. The Department of Education considers engagement and students’ ability to connect and build relationships as critical components of school climate. As students experience isolation during this period of social distancing, relationship building and connections with educators are essential to help students feel safe, connected, and engaged. It is very likely that for months to come, school districts across the country will continue to offer virtual learning options. This points to an ongoing need – and an opportunity – to redefine what “student engagement” means in the context of teaching and learning using virtual platforms.
The COVID-19 pandemic, and subsequent shift to distance learning, have significantly transformed school discipline practice – including the opportunities available to identify and provide proactive support, the work of engaging and building relationships with students, and the student behaviors needing a disciplinary response. However, neither districts we spoke with has reopened schools in-person, and there has not been much discussion regarding what discipline will look like once students are back in school buildings. Districts and schools still providing virtual instruction may benefit from proactive planning on how to maintain supportive, effective discipline approaches during school reopening. There may be a surge in discipline referrals as teachers may have heightened senses of caution for their personal safety and may interpret certain student actions (e.g., not wearing masks) as putting them in risky situations health-wise. Administrators will need to consider policies and procedures for addressing these cases fairly and equitably, while preserving due process for families and students seeking to appeal disciplinary decisions.
This blog was developed by NCSSLE partner, Child Trends, authors Kristen Harper and Obioma Okogbue. We would also like to thank the district officials that contributed, including: Elma Dzanic, Support Services Manager, Phoenix Union High School District, and Vickie Shoap, Restorative Justice Specialist II, Fairfax County Public Schools.