Schools Haven’t Thought about Mandated Reporting with Online Class
by Stella Lorence
SAN MATEO, CALIFORNIA – Forced to rapidly transition to online learning, K-12 schools
have not thought about the effects on mandated reporting of child abuse that may result from a
sustained lack of personal connection to educators.
John Fong, the Director of Children and Family Services for San Mateo County, the county that
contains Roosevelt Elementary, said he has seen a decrease in reporting across all types of abuse
and neglect that aligns with the implementation of shelter-in-place orders.
“What I can tell you is, from the beginning of March, we’ve been tracking weekly data, so
weekly report counts coming into our county hotline, and week to week, since shelter in place,
we’re seeing anywhere from a 60 to 70 percent decrease in child abuse reporting to our hotline,”
Most people in occupations that require regular contact with children are considered mandated
reporters, including teachers, instructional aides, members of the clergy, therapists and coaches,
according to The Child Abuse and Neglect Reporting Act, or section 11166 of the California
Penal Code. People who fall into the mandated reporter category are required to make a report if
they have “reasonable suspicion” that a child is being abused or neglected as outlined by the
School employees are required to take annual mandated reporter training, which includes
instruction for identifying child abuse and neglect and the process of making a report. A
mandated reporter who fails to make a report of known or reasonably suspected child abuse or
neglect is guilty of a misdemeanor.
Cathy Kassel is a first-grade teacher at Roosevelt Elementary School in Burlingame, California,
which is one of seven schools that make up the Burlingame School District. Kassel said she has
made five mandated reports over the course of her 18-year teaching career.
“In my first ten years, I made one report and I actually had the child removed from his home,”
Kassel said. “And it was for neglect and it took a lot of documentation, but he was removed
from his home.”
Roosevelt transitioned to remote learning on March 13, when the San Mateo County Health
Officer issued the School Operations Modification Order for all school districts in the county.
The order was revised on March 26 to extend school closures through the end of the school year.
Schools and school districts were “encouraged to implement at-home learning models, including
but not limited to online learning if feasible,” according to the order.
Although in the Burlingame School District, most of the lesson content is distributed through
pre-recorded lessons that students can complete at their own pace, teachers are regularly
checking in with students via video conferencing.
Kassel meets virtually with every student one-on-one at least once a week. She was not given
any special instructions by her principal or superintendent regarding mandated reporting during
“Nothing has changed,” Burlingame School District Superintendent Maggie MacIssac said.
“[Teachers] can absolutely fulfill those same obligations.”
Kassel requests for her own safety that at least one parent is nearby for those digital meetings,
though she suspects the presence of a parent may hinder reporting.
“When children have confided in me, it’s because they trust me and because their classroom is a
safe space for them,” Kassel said. “If I see something about that child that’s concerning me and I
ask that child ‘How did this happen. I noticed this, how did this happen?’ then nine times out of
ten the child will tell me. But Mom and Dad aren’t there, nobody’s there. It’s just me and the
kid in a safe place.”
Because a child is defined in the penal code as anyone under the age of 18, the majority of high
school students are also covered by mandated reporting provisions.
Kevin Skelly is the superintendent of the San Mateo Union High School District, which consists
of seven high schools and one adult school that shares a campus with one of the high schools.
He said that high school staff did not receive any special instructions regarding mandated
“That’s not a question I’ve been asked, to be honest,” Skelly said.
About two weeks ago, the San Mateo Department of Children and Family Services released a
public service announcement targeting educators that was meant to raise awareness and provide
guidance for how teachers can be effective mandated reporters during online learning. After
releasing the announcement, the department saw a bump in reporting, from a 60 or 70% decrease
to a 44% decrease.
Both the Burlingame School District and the San Mateo Union High School District had
employees from the district office doing in-person check ins to the homes of students who
teachers were not able to get into contact with once online learning was implemented.
“We’ll drop off stuff, we’ll work with people,” Skelly said.
Students receiving check-ins from district staff were not necessarily students that were suspected
to be victims of abuse or neglect, and the bulk of the home visits were done in the first phase of
“This system that we’re doing is working for at least half of our students pretty well, but it’s the
20% that even though we’ve provided the access points to them, we’re spending a lot more time
just connecting with kids than we are in creating curriculum,” said Hillsdale High School
Principal Jeff Gilbert in a March 26 Special Board meeting. “I think we had no idea how much
time we would end up spending just reaching out, texting, emailing, calling, trying to connect
with kids. Teachers are working much harder than I would’ve anticipated just in that one-to-one,
trying to find students and connect with them.”
With a gap left by school officials, the state government is doing what it can to prevent abusive
situations from worsening or going unnoticed during the pandemic. Child welfare hotline and
emergency response investigations are deemed essential government functions that are
continuing to operate under shelter-in-place orders.
“It is essential that we perform this function during this time, particularly when stress may be
heightened by health concerns, potential financial losses and increased caregiving
responsibilities while children are not in school or participating in normal day-to-day activities,”
according to a state Department of Social Services letter to all county agencies.
Agencies are continuing in-person contact for investigations into reports of abuse and neglect
and placement of children who have been removed from their homes, two of the most critical
functions, according to Joan Miller, deputy director of Family and Child Services in San
Francisco County’s Human Services Agency.
Under the new guidelines for county agencies, families or children receiving monthly
caseworker visits will now participate in the visits virtually through videoconferencing
technology such as Zoom or Facetime unless their caseworker deems an in-person visit
necessary. As always, the emphasis for caseworkers is to help families stay together; children
are removed from the home only as a last resort.
California Governor Gavin Newsom also announced $42 million to protect foster children and
families impacted by COVID-19 on April 13. Specifically, $27 million will go towards helping
families stay together; $7 million will support social workers; and $3 million will support Family
Resource centers, according to a press release from the governor’s office.
“Every child deserves to grow up in a safe, stable and nurturing environment free from fear,
abuse and neglect,” Newsom said. “Our foster youth and the families who care for them need our
support to get through this difficult time. We’re ramping up funding on initiatives that keep
families together and support the social workers who provide critical services to help families
The governor’s office has also put out calls in English and Spanish for friends and neighbors to
keep an eye out for children who may be in trouble and to submit reports, even if they are not