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To Report Abuse, Or Not? Zoom Classes Create Dilemma For Teachers


Remote learning - it's the way millions of American children are going to school now, and it's making it hard for teachers to build relationships. Some students struggle to engage over the computer, and teachers don't always get a full sense of their progress. Virtual learning also gives teachers a direct look into students' home lives, and some of what they are seeing can be very troubling. From member station WBEZ in Chicago, Susie An reports. And just a warning, this story might not be appropriate for all listeners.

SUSIE AN, BYLINE: Last month, a Chicago teacher witnessed a harrowing incident during a virtual class, an 18-year-old allegedly sexually assaulting one of her 7-year-old students. Some of the other kids saw it, too. The teacher quickly filed a report and called police, and the teen was arrested. While blatant cases of abuse are rare during remote learning, teachers find themselves grappling with less direct access to their students, even as they get a more personal glimpse into their home lives.

UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER: Our school district mandates that the children have their cameras on. And for some, I see why the kids want to hide and not have their cameras on.

AN: This elementary school teacher in a Chicago suburb says she's now seeing inappropriately dressed adults or hearing mature language come from a student's home. And she needs to be careful addressing students because she doesn't know who else could be listening. This teacher recently reported an incident with a student during remote learning, so to protect the student's privacy, we aren't using her name.

UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER: He wouldn't turn his camera on. He wouldn't talk, but he would talk to me via the chat.

AN: She says he left his scheduled class and logged into her room and reached out to her, saying he was considering killing himself. She was able to calm him down and then immediately get help. She's not sure the situation would have played out the same way in person.

UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER: If he was at school, I know he wouldn't have gotten up and left out of his classroom, but at least he had the wherewithal to say, I need to talk to somebody.

AN: Randi Weingarten heads the American Federation of Teachers and says teachers are facing new situations. Did they see an adult hit a child? Is a child home alone?

RANDI WEINGARTEN: You have a terrible circle of abdication responsibility, which then puts even more pressure and more judgment calls on individual teachers.

AN: She says teachers can't do it all. They need better guidance and more resources to help them cope with the pandemic's side effects. When Illinois went under a stay-at-home order last spring, child abuse reports dropped dramatically. Tierney Stutz is with the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services. She says now those numbers look more typical, and she thinks part of it is because some students are back in actual schools. She says remote learning shouldn't get in the way of teachers looking out for their students' well-being.

TIERNEY STUTZ: Any time they have any suspicion of any maltreatment whatsoever, they don't have to have evidence, they don't have to have even a specific incident, they just need to have a set of circumstances that makes them suspicious of possible child maltreatment.

AN: First grade teacher Erin Breen has no problem reporting an incident if one arises. But virtual learning has her thinking of how she talks to students. She finds it hard to anticipate when a child might volunteer sensitive information during virtual class. At school, she can pull them aside for a quiet conversation, but that's now harder to do.

ERIN BREEN: I worry about that confidentiality and privacy component that now has been transmitted into everyone's home.

AN: She says it's been awkward to handle things that she normally wouldn't see or hear if a student was in front of her.

BREEN: But this is school now. This is what school is. And I am seeing it, and I'm hearing it.

AN: For NPR News, I'm Susie An in Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As a reporter for WBEZ's news desk, Susie produces content for daily newscasts and WBEZ's website. She also anchors, occasionally, delivering news on WBEZ. She directed WBEZ's Schools on the Line monthly call-in show. Her work has also been heard on NPR, CBC and BBC. Susie joined WBEZ as a news desk intern in September 2007. Prior to joining WBEZ, Susie worked at the Peoria Journal Star newspaper and worked as an acquisitions editor for Publications International,Ltd.