Virtual Learning Leads to Drop in Mandatory Reporting of Suspected Child Abuse

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By David McPeak, Blog Editor

Every state requires certain professionals responsible for the care of children to report suspected child abuse. [1] In Pennsylvania, 23 Pa. C.S. § 6311 delineates which professionals “shall make a report of suspected child abuse … if the person has reasonable cause to suspect that a child is a victim of child abuse.” [2] Those professionals usually spending the most time interacting with children are teachers or more broadly, “a school employee.” [3] The unprecedented move to online instruction in K-12 schools over the past year as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic has created a gap in the ability of “mandated reporters” such as teachers, school resource officers, and counselors to develop reasonable cause to suspect a student of being a victim of child abuse. [4]

Mandatory abuse reporting requirements are more than an affirmative duty for those charged with the care and safety of children. In fact, failure to notify authorities of suspected abuse can subject mandatory reporters to both criminal and civil penalties. [5] But how is the command of such an important responsibility squared with a virtual learning environment? The data being collected from the recent period of mass-school closure is demonstrating that it cannot.

Across the country, state child protective agencies report a marked decrease in reports of suspected abuse. [6] Rather than being a cause for celebration, experts expect actual cases of abuse are on the rise. Social and economic effects of the pandemic have increased the risk factors that typically lead to abuse and neglect. [7] According to a recent study published by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), such factors include “loss of income, increased stress related to parental child care and schooling responsibilities, and increased substance use and mental health conditions among adults.” [8] Given the fact that probable victims are confined to their homes for virtual learning (often with an abuser) the opportunity for abuse to occur is much higher than before the pandemic. [9] This is especially true when the only interaction with mandatory reporters is confined to a few hours of zoom instruction. [10]

Additionally, the increased amount of time students spend connected to their devices creates an environment where sexual predators have a greater opportunity to take advantage of children lacking adult supervision. According to several child advocacy experts, many kids currently lack typical support systems they rely on when attending school while contemporaneously depending on technology exclusively for education, entertainment, and social interaction. [11] This presents great cause for concern according to one Indiana teacher who is responsible for an age-appropriate curriculum that instructs students “about sex abuse education, body safety, and cyberbullying and harassment.” [12] Even though state law mandates such instruction, it is not being adhered to uniformly across the state in the virtual learning environment. [13] At the same time, students are spending vast amounts of their day on devices—a fact which online predators “who know where kids go” are surely aware of. [14]

As challenging as it is to recognize signs of abuse over a computer screen, it is impossible when students simply do not show up. Alarmingly, statistics which are now coming to light, show gaps in the number of students who are “just missing” from virtual education environments. [15] In one St. Paul Minnesota district, 20% of students fail to participate in online education; [16] in Baltimore, “80% of students had logged on, but only 65% were reliably present.”

While many of the nation’s public schools have returned to at least some form of in-person instruction, some school districts, particularly in large metropolitan areas, have remained closed amongst struggles with public teachers’ unions. [17] In California, lack of interaction with mandatory reporters is cited in a lawsuit brought by the City and County of San Francisco, which seeks a preliminary injunction to force teachers back into classrooms. [18] The city’s court filing alleges that since schools closed last March, “calls to the Family and Children’s Services abuse and neglect hotline have dropped to nearly half the normal rate.” [19] The lawsuit further states that “child welfare experts” believe that “abuse and neglect of children of San Francisco is simply going unaddressed.” [20] The City unequivocally links these statistics to teachers’ continued refusal to return to in-person instruction. It states, “[t]he daily, protective eyes of teachers, childcare professionals, coaches, and other school staff are no longer on San Francisco’s most vulnerable children.” [21]

School closures are not only masking potential abuse from those who have a legal duty to report it but may also be responsible for a dramatic rise in emotional and physical harm to students confined to remote learning environments. [22] For example, San Francisco cites local emergency physicians who attest to a “significant increase in children of all ages presenting with anxiety, depression, eating disorders, social withdrawal, and suicidal ideation.” [23] Moreover, San Francisco hospitals report an increase in children presenting with physical ailments including “obesity and obesity comorbidities” such as “high blood pressure, pre-diabetes, type II diabetes, and fatty liver disease.” [24] Locally, a recent survey of remote learners in the Pittsburgh area pointed to similar outcomes where nearly three-quarters of students participating indicated that they had “mental health concerns” over the past year, which included “virtual learning and losing their extracurricular activities.” [25]

In response to the decrease in abuse reporting, some states are reaching out to the general public to fill the gap caused by school closures. [26] Others, like California, are expanding the definition of a mandated reporter through legislation to include “human resource employees” or an “adult person whose duties require direct contact with and supervision of minors in the performance of the minors’ duties.” [27] Such legislation will have a significant impact on California businesses by including those who supervise teenagers working in various industries such as food service and entertainment. [28]

At the national level, legislation introduced in Congress seeks to address all of the concerns related to virtual learning by requiring the majority of Covid-19 education funding be conditioned upon “the state working to have kids back in school” in order to provide incentives for schools to safely reopen. [29]



[1] 2 EDUCATION LAW § 6D.01 (2020)

[2] 23 Pa.C.S. § 6311 (Lexis Advance through 2021 Regular Session Act 9; P.S. documents are current through 2021 Regular Session Act 9)

[3] 23 Pa. C.S. § 6311(a)(4).

[4] Megan Henry, Reporting of Child Abuse Fell in Ohio as COVID Kept Kids From School, The Columbus Dispatch, September 14, 2020.

[5] 2 EDUCATION LAW § 6D.01 (2020)

[6] Laura Cross, Special Report: Sex Offenses Thrive in Covid-19’s Shadow, Authorities Say, The Munster Indiana Times, November 29, 2020.

[7] Swedo E, Idaikkadar N, Leemis R, et al. Trends in U.S. Emergency Department Visits Related to Suspected or Confirmed Child Abuse and Neglect Among Children and Adolescents Aged <18 Years Before and During the COVID-19 Pandemic — United States, January 2019–September 2020, MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep. 2020;69:1841–1847. DOI:

[8] Id.

[9] Cross, supra.

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

[12] Cross, supra.

[13] Id.

[14] Id.

[15] Patrick J. Coolican, Q&A: Ann Bauer is incensed that kids aren’t back in school, Minnesota Reformer, February 15, 2021.

[16] Id.

[17] Rep. Mike Garcia, Mike Garcia Op-ed: The Science says Open Schools, Targeted News Service, March 11, 2021, 7:00 am.

[18] Pet’r’s. Mem. Supp. Ex Parte Mtn. for PI., at 6, City and County of San Francisco v. San Francisco Board of Education, et. al., No. CPF-21-517352 (San. Fran. Supp. Ct. 2021).

[19] Id. at 18.

[20] Id. at 19.

[21] Id. at 18.

[22] Garcia, supra.

[23] San Francisco at 17.

[24] Id. at 18.

[25] Marlo Safi, My Life Is Very Vague And Lonely”: High School Seniors Give Disturbing Responses To Virtual Schooling Survey, Daily Caller, (February 5, 2021, 10:10 AM),

[26] Katharhynn Heidelberg, State and Mandated Reporters Urge Public to Help Keep Kids Safe By Reporting Abuse and Neglect, The Montrose Daily Press, June 25, 2020.

[27] Joshua Rodine, California Takes Steps to Ensure The Kids Are Alright, Mondaq Business Briefing, January 6, 2021.

[28] Id.

[29] Garcia, supra.

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