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How the pandemic has altered school discipline — perhaps forever

Schools have dealt with remote learning violations and mask-wearing offenses, and have had an opportunity to rethink harsh discipline.

Rosamund Looney
Rosamund Looney, who teaches first grade in Jefferson Parish, Louisiana, said that because of the stresses of the pandemic and online learning, “we need to grant a lot of grace and accomodations.”
Courtesy of Rosamund Looney

This article was produced as part of an ongoing series on school discipline during the pandemic, reported by HuffPost and The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.

One Thursday this fall, a middle schooler in Florida’s Brevard Public Schools received an in-school suspension. He had ripped off another student’s face mask and blown into a peer’s face. That same day, six other students across the district were written up for not wearing their masks correctly (including one who also faked using hand sanitizer), while an elementary school student was assigned three days of “private dining” for sharing food in violation of safety guidelines. Meanwhile, an e-learning student got in trouble for filming another student during class without permission.

In many ways, that Thursday was emblematic of a new age of discipline, with multiple students across the district getting written up for infractions that didn’t exist the school year before. Students removed their masks, chatted inappropriately in Zoom and failed to socially distance. In all, about 11 percent of discipline incidents outlined in detail from the start of the school year in late August to mid-September were in some way related to the coronavirus pandemic and the district’s new requirements for in-person and virtual instruction, according to records that Brevard Public Schools provided to The Hechinger Report/HuffPost.

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For teachers around the country, school discipline during the pandemic has been confounding. Few have received much guidance from administrators on how to handle discipline issues that arise in remote learning and in school buildings where education has been reshaped by new health and safety guidelines. In many districts, like Brevard, which this school year has conducted a mix of virtual and in-person instruction, the pandemic appears to have brought new challenges for teachers trying to keep themselves and their students safe.

At the same time, with fewer children in school, in some districts the number of students being referred to the justice system by school administrators has fallen, prompting advocates and lawyers to wonder if schools will permanently reconsider their role in criminalizing student behavior.

But they also worry that if students don’t receive adequate counseling and other support to cope with emotional challenges exacerbated by the pandemic, there will be a surge in behavioral issues and punitive discipline when more children return to classrooms. “I predict there will be a train wreck if we don’t staff up and provide the services, especially mental health services … to all the kids who may need them,” said Dan Losen, director of the Center for Civil Rights Remedies at UCLA’s Civil Rights Project.

Remote instruction has opened up a new world when it comes to school discipline. The lines between students’ school and home lives have blurred, and teachers must make tricky calculations about when to intervene in situations witnessed over Zoom.

At the start of this school year, many lawyers and advocates worried about a possible flurry of expulsions and suspensions in remote learning. That doesn’t appear to have materialized in a significant way. Yet a few high-profile cases have drawn scrutiny to the ways that some school districts have meted out justice during the pandemic.

In Colorado, two middle schoolers were suspended in early September after they both appeared to be playing with toy guns during online class. And in Louisiana’s Jefferson Parish district in September, fourth grader Ka’Mauri Harrison was suspended after a teacher saw a toy BB gun in his bedroom during virtual learning.

After an outcry over his six-day suspension, the state passed a law requiring school districts to write new discipline policies for virtual learning and make it easier for students who face expulsion for certain offenses to appeal. The parish, though, declined to scrub Ka’Mauri’s suspension from his record, although in December it did reduce the suspension to three days, which the boy had already served.

Rosamund Looney, a first grade teacher in the Jefferson Parish school district, said that remote learning has complicated the task of supporting and disciplining students. Looney has long taken what she calls a restorative approach to discipline, with the goal of encouraging positive behavior. In virtual instruction, she said that has meant being flexible when students don’t have their cameras on or log on late to class.

“For me it feels unethical to discipline students who are online for circumstances that are beyond their control, like noise in their home environment or if they are late,” she said.

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One of her students was constantly showing up late during remote learning. Looney reminded the first grader that she had to be in virtual class by 7:45 a.m. — and then realized that her student didn’t know how to tell time. “I think we need to grant a lot of grace and accommodations,” said Looney.

In San Antonio, Texas, high school history teacher Luke Amphlett said he never insists on students keeping their cameras on during virtual instruction. As the coronavirus has spread and teachers and students alike have experienced trauma, more teachers have been granting students leniency in remote learning, said Amphlett. “I have seen a lot of educators shift their thinking on everything from grading, to having cameras on, to discipline, to the way they do outreach to families and how they conceptualize of their own job as teachers,” he said.

Meanwhile, lawyers and advocates caution that inappropriate suspensions and other discipline may be going unnoticed. Chelsea Helena, a staff attorney focused on education issues with the Neighborhood Legal Services of Los Angeles County, said that remote learning has created an opportunity for teachers to take “shortcuts” in terms of discipline, by muting students, turning off their cameras or prohibiting their entry to online classes. Such punitive actions do not have to be reported by the teacher and school, she noted.

“Exclusionary discipline just looks different now,” said Helena.

When it comes to in-person education, educators are grappling with how to maintain and enforce rules intended to keep themselves and their students safe.

In Brevard, the majority of Covid-related discipline infractions outlined in the records provided to Hechinger/HuffPost involved students wearing masks incorrectly, which is treated like a dress code violation. In October, the school board extended its mandate that students and staff wear masks in school, despite pushback from some parents.

Russell Bruhn, chief strategic communications officer for Brevard Public Schools, said that teachers had not complained to the district about having to monitor for coronavirus-related violations. He added that the district had worked closely with the teachers’ union to listen to any concerns about keeping schools open safely. “Teacher, staff, student safety is the number one concern,” Bruhn said.

Teachers elsewhere say that ensuring compliance with mask-wearing has been a struggle. Tamara Cupit, who teaches ninth grade civics in Livingston Parish, Louisiana, said that just as getting adults to follow mask-wearing protocols has been difficult for the state’s governor, John Bel Edwards, so too has it been a challenge when it comes to kids in her school. “We are constantly having to tell students to pull up their mask, wear their mask, sanitize their hands,” she said.

But unless a child openly defies a teacher, students aren’t typically punished for failing to comply with mask-wearing, she said.

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Still, fights over masks have flared in other contexts. Diane Smith Howard, managing attorney for juvenile and criminal justice with the National Disability Rights Network, said her group has encountered cases of schools excluding kids from in-person instruction if they have disabilities that prevent them from wearing masks. That’s an inappropriate, and potentially illegal, punishment, she said. Federal education and disability laws require that schools meet a number of conditions before removing children with disabilities from the same setting as their nondisabled peers, she said, and it doesn’t appear that schools are satisfying these requirements.

“The law is quite clear,” said Smith Howard. “You can’t put a child on remote learning because they can’t wear a mask.” She added, “I see it as an excuse to remove kids they wanted to remove anyway.”

For some teachers, the pandemic has also made it harder to support students and encourage positive behavior. Looney, in Jefferson Parish, said that because of health guidelines and the challenges of simultaneously teaching in-person and virtual learners, she has to spend her days at the front of the classroom and can’t circulate as she once did. That restricts her ability to hold private, one-on-one conversations with students to try to redirect their behavior or praise them if they’re doing well. It’s also made “morning meetings,” in which students gather in a circle and practice social and emotional skills, more challenging, and there is no longer enough time in the day to prioritize these skills.

Such restorative practices often involve negotiation with students, said Looney, but “right now there are a lot of nonnegotiables in the classrooms.” Students must sit at their desks all day, without recess, wear masks and keep away from one another.

Brian Westlake, a high school social studies teacher in Georgia’s Gwinnett County, also said the pandemic has meant putting restorative discipline on pause.

His district tends to take a punitive approach to student discipline, he said. Eager to try a different strategy, Westlake helped set up a youth court at his school in fall 2019 that gave students a chance to take the lead in resolving minor infractions. Then the pandemic hit and, with so many new logistical challenges and demands on teachers’ time, the court had to be put on hold.

Westlake, who is teaching both in-person students and remote learners from his classroom, said that schools have long confused students’ emotional needs with behavioral issues. He hopes the coronavirus crisis will prompt greater awareness of the shortcomings of that approach. More parents are speaking out now about their children’s mental health problems, and administrators may start to recognize the urgent need for investment in counseling and other support. “It’s an opportunity to recognize that what we used to think of as discipline problems were often about needs going unaddressed,” he said.

Westlake said that while he’s not aware of any official updated disciplinary guidance in his district during the pandemic, his principal and the state superintendent have made statements about extending “grace” to students during this time.

The pandemic, meanwhile, has been accompanied by an accelerating movement to reduce harsh discipline and police presence in schools. Some states have taken steps in recent years to curtail police involvement in routine school discipline. The police killing of George Floyd this spring prompted a fresh wave of activism calling for the cancelation of school district contracts with police departments.

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Since the pandemic began, some school districts, particularly those that have gone fully virtual, have, unsurprisingly, recorded a significant decrease in police involvement and student arrests. Between mid-March and November 2018, for example, Florida’s Miami-Dade County Public Schools recorded 81 incidents that resulted in student arrests. Over the same period in 2019, the figure was 114. Then, last year, when the school district went remote, the number was just five, according to data provided to The Hechinger Report/HuffPost.

Losen of UCLA cautions against drawing conclusions from such data, however. “It’s a bit artificial to say referrals are down just like it is to say school suspensions are down,” he said. “If you aren’t conducting in-person education, you aren’t going to be kicking kids out.”

Still, advocates and lawyers are also optimistic that this moment could accelerate efforts to keep students from being sent to jail for school-related activities. Michael Waller, executive director of the nonprofit Georgia Appleseed Center for Law & Justice, said that schools tend to harshly punish kids for vaguely defined infractions such as “disruptive” or “defiant” behavior. In school, he said, kids are criminalized for activities that wouldn’t be considered criminal in another environment.

“Schools have a choice to make in whether they are going to participate in the school-to-prison pipeline,” he said.

Amphlett, the San Antonio teacher, said that, so far, educators are choosing to focus on supporting students’ emotional well-being, rather than on disciplining them.

“The pandemic is really shaking people’s foundations,” he said. “I think if we can make sure every educator doesn’t quit, because we’re so abandoned with COVID, the result — hopefully — will be a really positive one.”