Coronavirus: Who’s watching out for vulnerable kids when schools are closed?

Kenny Jones Jr., with Dayton public school, packs up boxes of food at Westwood School to be delivered by buses to students. MARSHALL GORBYSTAFF
Kenny Jones Jr., with Dayton public school, packs up boxes of food at Westwood School to be delivered by buses to students. MARSHALL GORBYSTAFF

Educators and child advocates across the Dayton region and state of Ohio are concerned school shutdowns due to coronavirus mean many vulnerable children have lost their safe haven at the same time family stresses have increased.

“In this new world of social distancing, we can’t distance ourselves so much not to hear the voices of our kids,” said Shannon Jones, executive director of Groundwork Ohio, a statewide public policy agency focusing on children 5 and younger. “We are very worried that there are fewer eyes on children because of the pandemic.”

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Educational professionals are mandatory reporters of child abuse and neglect, filing one in five claims nationwide, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Child advocates fear that fewer children will be entering the child welfare system now that the largest groups of mandatory reporters, including pediatricians and counselors, are no longer seeing children face to face every day.

“We’re already hearing that complaints about abuse are down because there are not as many eyes on the child,” said Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine.

That's particularly troubling, DeWine said, given the tragic case of 10-year-old Takoda Collins, who died Dec. 13, more than a year after being withdrawn from Dayton Public Schools to be home-schooled. His father has been charged with four counts of endangering children, two counts of felonious assault and one count of rape.

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“Teachers are clearly on the front lines in this crisis,” DeWine said. “The superintendents and teachers I have talked to are taking this very seriously; they know they have an important role to play.”

Schools and other child advocates have been getting creative to maintain connections during the public health stay-at-home order that’s been extended until at least May 1. That includes using social media and food pick-ups, as well as more frequent check-ins on some children.

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The faith community also plays a critical role, said the Rev. Peter Matthews, pastor of McKinley United Methodist Church in Dayton, which has organized food and school supplies drives for students.

“From day to day we have no idea how close to the edge people are, psychologically and emotionally,” he said. “And then you add the pressures of what we are going through now — it’s a Molotov cocktail of dysfunction. These kids are up against odds you can’t imagine.”

Falling through the cracks

Dayton school Superintendent Elizabeth Lolli said her staff is frustrated by their inability to do what they are trained to do as educators.

“If a student doesn’t have someone to talk to at home, they at least have a trusted teacher or principal at school, who cares about them and sees them as an individual,” she said. “This is a scary time, unprecedented in our history as a nation.”

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Teachers are first responders, state Sen. Peggy Lehner, R-Kettering said, and they need help.

“There’s no question children are going to be falling through the cracks — through huge chasms, in fact,” Lehner said.

The crisis comes after Dayton has endured two devastating tragedies, the Oregon District shootings and the Memorial Day tornadoes, which shut some area schools down prematurely last year as well. In the spirit of #DaytonStrong, area educators and community leaders are exhibiting resilience and resourcefulness in their efforts to engage students and their families. In addition to innovative approaches to online learning, some districts, including Dayton, are organizing teacher caravans or "honk-arounds," in which teachers drive around to visit students from their cars.

Simply posting online assignments won’t be enough to protect students and keep them engaged. “It’s important to have that face-to-face contact,” Lolli said. “It’s important that students see their teachers, and that teachers see their students.”

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Dayton grandmother Kathy O’Banion couldn’t agree more. She is raising two granddaughters — Karlei Smith, 12, and Kylei Williams, 14 — who attend Dayton schools. “Teachers can tell when a kid is distressed,” she said. “They can look at a child and say, ‘This student isn’t being cared for properly.’ And you can’t do that online; you can’t do that at all.”

Maintaining that personal connection is taking a variety of forms in Dayton schools, including online lessons that can be accessed on DPS-TV, YouTube or through DPSOnlineLearning.com. In addition, hundreds of teachers and other staffers are volunteering to distribute meals — more than 100,000 to date — to students throughout the district. More than 1,000 book bags have been distributed containing journals, books and boxes of food.

“They want to make sure they maintain physical contact while practicing social distancing,” Lolli said. “I have a very creative and committed group of principals and teachers. I can’t tell you the number of people packing lunches, and delivering those lunches, or the countless hours teachers have spent creating online lessons, staying constantly in contact with their students.”

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O’Banion is thankful for these efforts.

“What I love is that the teachers are making sure all the lessons are online, they are doing everything they can do,” she said.

Every Wednesday since the shutdown, hundreds of volunteers, including many staffers, congregate at eight DPS buildings to assemble packages of breakfast and lunch items intended to last for five days for each family.

A flotilla of school buses delivers the food packages directly to the homes of some students. But most families pick up the packages curbside at the school buildings, their kids invariably in tow, waving excitedly at teachers and cafeteria workers. They peer longingly at the school building as if at an estranged friend.

“This is what we do,” said teacher Susan Trissell, as she waved at her students. “We care for kids — we supply them with food and with life skills, and we ensure their safety and well-being, academically and emotionally. I love my kids.”

‘No community is immune’

Local, state and national officials are paying special heed to the plight of at-risk children during the COVID-19 outbreak. In a letter last week to Vice President Mike Pence, U.S. Sens. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, and Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, urged the administration to issue national guidance for child welfare agencies during the COVID-19 outbreak.

Montgomery County Prosecuting Attorney Mat Heck last week recognized April as Child Abuse and Prevention Month, noting, “Today, with the current coronavirus directives, people and families are even more stressed than usual. Children are out of school, many parents are out of work, and everyone is sheltering at home. This greatly increases the chances of child abuse and domestic violence occurring.”

Montgomery County Juvenile Court Judge Anthony Capizzi, who oversees the Court Appointed Special Advocates program, said he is especially anxious about children from troubled homes who haven’t yet entered the child welfare system.

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“In times of stress, recession and lost jobs, when people are staying at home, they may start drinking and take out their frustrations on their family members,” Capizzi said. “Those are the children who worry me the most, because we aren’t looking at them.”

Children already in the system are being monitored much more carefully, Capizzi said; every probation officer has been directed to have contact twice a week with delinquent minors, and guardians ad litem have been asked to make contact at least twice a month. Therapists and family treatment providers have been FaceTiming and Skyping with clients whenever possible.

Even when CASA volunteers and guardians can’t meet with children face to face, they make phone calls, texting students, sharing photos and drawings — even writing old-fashioned letters.

“This is another trauma that these children are going through, and it’s important to let them know that the CASA volunteer is still there in their lives,” CASA program manager Jane Novick said.

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There are no easy answers, Capizzi acknowledged, but neighbors can be part of the solution.

“We need to step up more,” he said. “We need to look after grandparents but after their grand kids, too. It’s like getting back to the old days. If you know kids in the neighborhood, check in on them — and not just the child, but the family as well.”

No community is immune, he said.

“Where you live makes no difference. We have children in Centerville, Vandalia and Oakwood who are severely at risk,” Capizzi said. “This is a county-wide challenge, not an inner-city challenge. Yet we are a community that has come through so many challenges. I am proud of our community, and I expect we will come through with the help of our neighbors.”

Danger of rise in domestic violence, exploitation

The YWCA Dayton already has seen a slight increase in the number of calls to its domestic violence hotline, according to Audrey Starr, director of marketing and communications.

It’s too early to tell if that’s related to the outbreak, she said, but the risk increases when so many people are out of work or temporarily furloughed.

“When the family is physically in the same place all day, and the economy is tanking, that can really exacerbate existing issues and existing abuse,” Starr said. “For a lot of women coming into the shelter, the time their abuser was going to work was the only eight hours a day that they felt safe, and the same is often true for children, where school is the safe place.”

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The YWCA Dayton has been collaborating with the Ohio Domestic Violence Network and the YWCA USA to anticipate an increased demand for services at a time when shelter beds already are near capacity.

“It’s important for women to know that even in this crisis we are still here, we are still available to help,” Starr said. “Call us.”

It is not only the potential for domestic violence that escalates when families are isolated in their homes, but also the risk of sexual exploitation, according to Rochelle Garner, executive director of the YWCA’s Girls LEAD! program. Garner already has heard reports of an elementary school girl who had been talking on an online dating site with a much older man.

“We should have our eyes and ears open for what is happening,” she said. “Middle school girls are a particularly vulnerable population for online sexual exploitation or sex trafficking.”

Normally, her staff can do that through regular Girls LEAD! activities, both in-school and after school, ranging from fun activities such as a Dayton Contemporary Dance Company concert to a workshop on teen dating violence.

“We have no idea how long this will go on, so we want to keep girls safe as much as we can,” she said.

To that end, Garner is setting up a “Parents Corner” and “Girls Corner” on the Girls LEAD! website, focusing not only on educational activities but also advice about staying safe on social media and maintaining healthy relationships.

“This will be a safe space for girls and their parents to connect with us and ask questions,” she said.

Fighting social isolation, fostering community

Social isolation in itself can be detrimental to students’ mental health, and many educators are combating it with social media tools such as Zoom and Google Hangouts.

“My principal, Sarah Patterson, said it best: ‘Connection truly is what will keep us all together and grounded,’” said Michael Wadham, an elementary school counselor at Harman School in Oakwood.

Google Forms, he said, can collect information quickly from anyone with an email address. Last week, Harman students earned bonus points for taking a three-question survey about their mental health and needs in the home.

“I have been following up with every student who even indicated a moderate response,” Wadham said.

Similarly, many Beavercreek schools are using social media and video announcements to cheer on students and families.

“Some of my teachers are having Zoom meetings just to check in with kids and to talk about how to stay calm and talk about their feelings,” said Mindy Cline, principal at Primary Village North. “In a meeting last week, I asked teachers to think of ‘kindness challenges’ children can do to spread kindness and think of others during this time.”

It’s undoubtedly a chaotic time for school districts and families, but one that also provides opportunities for growth and deepening the bonds between educators and students.

“This has shown me the way our staff pulls together for our kids,’” Lolli said. “We are circling the wagons and we are fighting off the virus as a team, declaring, ‘You will not affect our children!’”

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