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Curbing the Spread of COVID-19, Anxiety, and Learning Loss for Youth Behind Bars

As educators and leaders juggle remote learning schedules, food distribution, and how to get kindergartners to sit still on Zoom meetings, there's one particularly vulnerable group of students in danger of falling off the education radar: students in the juventile justice system.

Coronavirus is spreading rapidly in pre- and post-trial correctional facilities across the United States, and the challenges of social distancing for students in regular districts—uneven educational resources and learning loss, anxiety and trauma, isolation from friends and family—are all massively compounded for students behind bars.

"It's not a new normal, it's a new abnormal," said Christine Jones, the superintendent of the Wyoming Girls School, the state's juvenile justice facility for girls. "Both our kids and staff are experiencing real fear fatigue." 

Health Problems Spreading

Josh Rovner of the nonprofit Sentencing Project, who has been tracking the spread of the pandemic in juvenile facilities, found that infections began not long after regular districts began shutting down and are now in more than half of states.

While those under 20 are generally in the lowest risk group for COVID-19, the deadly respiratory illness associated with the novel coronavirus, young people in the criminal justice system have been found to be statistically more likely than peers outside of prison to have problems like asthma, high blood pressure, and general poor health that can lower their resistance to the disease.

"In the context of the pandemic, adolescents who are currently in the juvenile justice system are particularly vulnerable to the direct health impacts of COVID-19," said Nancy Hill, a developmental psychologist at Harvard University, in a National Academies online symposium Friday.

Moreover, the setup of most juvenile facilities makes it difficult to follow health guidelines.

A legal injunction filed in Pennsylvania and echoed in others filed in California and Maryland noted that students do not have access to sinks or soap to regularly wash their hands, or access to disinfectants to clean their spaces.

"This lack of access to proper sanitation, combined with shared bathrooms and sinks, and regular close contact with other youth and staff creates an intolerably high risk of infectious spread," wrote the counsel for  C.Z., A.O., and Z.S.-W., all residents in a Pennsylvania justice facility, in that case.

Sarah Hinger, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union's juvenile justice project, said  juvenile justice facilities, like nursing homes, have had difficulties getting masks and other protective gear for staff and students working in close proximity.

In New Orleans, for example, the Center for Educational Excellence in Alternative Settings operates both the Travis Hill School for pre-adjudicated students and an education program for juveniles within the adult jail.  At Travis Hill, about a third of its teachers still instruct students in person on core content areas for three to four hours a day, with both teachers and students wearing donated masks and getting temperature checks three times a day, according to David Domenici, the director of CEEAS. At the school within the adult jail, however, masks are considered a security risk and students do not wear them.

Isolating those suspected of having the disease causes even more problems. For example, Hinger noted, students may have to go without regular showers or exercise because staff who would normally handle students are absent, and "efforts to contain the spread in settings like that resemble in many ways solitary confinement, and we know about the negative effect of that on anyone but particularly developmentally on young people."

Nearly 1 of every 6 COVID-19 infections in Louisiana so far are in juvenile justice systems, and some centers in the state have experienced jail breaks and riots in Monroe and Bridge City of students reportedly panicking over outbreaks and quarantine measures.

District Planning Needed 

Just as school and district leaders are planning for remote learning during the closures and health safety measures when schools reopen, Dominici argued that education leaders should be reaching out to justice facilities who have students in their districts to ensure continuity of their education and health, too.

I'm aware of many school districts who have simply nobody going into these facilities at any level," Dominici said.

"School district leadership I think should be doing two things at once," said Domenici, whose center works with a network of juvenile justice schools, facilities, and districts around the country. "One, if the secure care agency [the district works with] has a blanket policy that says education personnel are not permitted because they are 'not essential,' I believe the first thing that the school district leadership or principal should do is confront that and say, no, that's not correct. Our kids are entitled to an education and teachers are essential."

"Second, school districts and school principals need to hold themselves accountable," Domenici said. "They need to start asking themselves tough questions" about how to provide access to course materials in secure ways. "There are youth facilities around the country where technology is enabling those kids to learn more or less as effectively as other high school kids remotely, safely, but they have a lot of security on their WiFi. ... If someone says we can't do this safely, we know it's not true ... and now's the time to confront things like that."

Models for Support

The Wyoming Girls School, one of the first juvenile justice facilities in the country to follow a trauma-informed care model, knew its students would be particularly vulnerable as communities went into lockdown. Most of its residents have a history of trauma; many have mental health or special education needs in addition to traditional instructional needs.

In the past seven weeks, the school has quarantined dorms of students together, but continued in-person classes within living quarters. Teachers hold both live classes in their own subject and coordinate with the teachers in other dorms to hold virtual classes in other subjects. Therapy and special education meetings are held via video chats, in some cases, several times a day, according to Principal Dixie Cooper. 

The school has had the benefit of space and luck. There have been only 579 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and seven deaths at all in the state as of the start of May, and Jones said that while there were scares in which staff have been sent home for quarantines, no one has gotten sick so far. Teachers and students have their temperatures taken several times a day.

While many facilities have taken to limiting outdoor activities to prevent students from congregating, Cooper said the school is arranging frequent outdoor activities that naturally require distance, such as softball, to give students exercise without exposure.

Teachers have also tried to acknowledge the crisis for both staff and students, such as creating time capsules about the pandemic. "Just being in lockdown or on quarantine is traumatic. So we're having, in addition to providing services, to recognize these are kids that are in an unprecedented time," Jones said. "I mean, I think we'll all look back at COVID-19 and remember where we were and some of the things that happened."

But most of all, Jones and Cooper said they have reached out to students' parents, teachers, probation officers, and others via more frequent phone calls and video conferencing.

"Across the board, the kids and the case managers have said the fact that they can see eye to eye, even though it's not in person, the fact that they can look at their parents on a regular basis, multiple times a week, has really been beneficial and we will continue that process," Jones said. "They have daily contact with their parents or their families or guardians or whoever. ... We've even had kids be excited because they got to see that the parents had a puppy or they get to have a visual contact with siblings or grandparents or whomever else."

Building Connections

The additional outreach has been so helpful in reducing students' anxiety and behavior issues, Cooper said, that the school plans to continue to use additional video conferencing for visits for families and friends in areas of the rural state too far away from the school for regular in-person visits. 

Both the Wyoming educators and Dominici said students need support from their schools, to help keep them connected both academically and emotionally to their peers outside of prison. In New Orleans, students in the adult jail have Chromebooks preloaded with the same remote learning resources being used by other students in the district. But advocates argue many students who are released during this time period could end up completely disengaged from school.

"I'm acutely aware there are a lot of facilities where every week there are teachers from the district going in ... and I know some places where there's virtually nothing happening," Dominici said. "Sometimes I think what's happening is once there's an outbreak, all your attention is on [the district] and these just sort of slide. ... And that's criminal."

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