Wearing masks will help keep kids in school and may help prevent child abuse tragedies

YORK DISPATCH EDITORIAL BOARD
  • Pennsylvania child abuse reports in 2020 saw a decrease of approximately 22%.
  • That came during a time period when many school went partly or mostly to virtual learning.
  • Statewide child abuse reports from school employees dropped by 7,000.
Participants light candles before reading a pledge during the ninth annual candlelight vigil for abuse awareness at the Penn State York campus Wednesday, March 4, 2020. The event is sponsored by Penn State York's Human Development and Family Studies Club. Originally a vigil for child abuse awareness, this year's event has expanded to include sexual abuse and human trafficking awareness. Bill Kalina photo

Nearly every decision, no matter its intentions, will have some unintended consequences.

Unfortunately, it appears we are learning about that the hard way.

During the 2020-21 academic year, many schools went partly or mostly to virtual learning, all in an effort to slow the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Given the nature of the pandemic, which has claimed more than 700,000 American lives, the wisdom of that decision seems obvious to most of us.

However, we are now learning that, with children out of schools and away from in-person instruction with teachers, the number of child abuse reports in Pennsylvania saw a decline of approximately 22%, from 42,252 in 2019 to 32,919 in 2020.

More:With fewer watchful eyes, advocates fear child abuse is going unreported

Slightly more encouraging, the number of confirmed child abuse reports dropped only slightly, with 4,593 in 2020 compared with 4,865 the year prior.

York County followed the same downward trend in reports. For cases of child sex abuse, 30% fewer reports were made last year, according to data from York County Children, Youth and Families.

Of course, when you think about it, those drops are not all that surprising.

School staff are considered "mandated reporters," obligated by law to report suspected child abuse. School personnel typically make up the highest percentage of child abuse reporters every year. Statewide, reports from school employees dropped off considerably in 2020, with more than 7,000 fewer reports made than in 2019.

That’s an alarming number. It’s hard to imagine that, during a pandemic, when the economic and mental stress levels on families had to be higher than ever, that child abuse cases went down.

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Still, child abuse reports did go down. The correlation between virtual learning and the decrease in child abuse reports seems fairly obvious.

Supporting that conclusion is the following fact: While the number of reports made by mandated reporters decreased statewide, reports by "permissive reporters," or people not obligated to report suspected abuse, stayed about the same level in 2020 as in 2019.

It’s yet another reason why it’s imperative that we try to continue in-person learning during the 2021-22 academic year.

Most everyone agrees that children, especially younger children, learn better from in-person school instruction.

Now, how do we keep children in schools during the pandemic? By wearing masks, getting one of the vaccines, maintaining proper hygiene and social distancing whenever possible.

Most every study shows that those actions will help slow the spread of the pandemic in our schools.

That’s why we continue to support Gov. Tom Wolf’s much-maligned mask mandate for Pennsylvania schools.

The masks, despite the naysayers, will help keep our children in school and in a better learning environment, and by being in schools, the children will have more interactions with school personnel.

Those interactions may allow school employees to spot possible child abuse, which by law, they are then mandated to report.

Those reports could lead to investigations that could help save our children from more abuse, and possibly even death.

Child abuse, unfortunately, is not going away. We need as many watchful eyes as possible in positions to report those abuses. Keeping kids in schools and with teachers will help in that endeavor, and wearing masks will help keep kids in schools.

It's a simple and successful formula.