COVID-19: 5 steps to keep students safe during online learning

Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, schools have done a remarkable job of shifting their teaching and learning online. Unfortunately, this rapid transition has also increased and intensified a range of online safety risks for students, teachers and parents.

We know from our research that when online participation goes up among any age group, so too does exposure to potential harms. Children and young people can be particularly vulnerable to experiencing or witnessing cyberbullying and other abusive conduct, viewing age-inappropriate or dangerous content, and being contacted by people who want to exploit them emotionally, financially or sexually.

We also know the level of adult supervision varies across families and carers, not all homes are safe places for children and young people, and access to support services may be more difficult during this time.

So, it’s not surprising that over recent weeks eSafety has received a range of questions about how schools can promote and maintain child safety and wellbeing while delivering online learning.

The good news is, there are many steps your school can take to prevent and minimise the risks. You can read the eSafety Commissioner’s open letter to principals which provides information about our resources and programs.

You can also explore eSafety’s Education pages for lots of practical and effective advice and resources. But to start you off, here’s a summary of the most relevant strategies and how to implement them.

  1. Assess the safety risks of any online platforms or tools used with students.

  2. Make policies and procedures clear and accessible to all staff.

  3. Talk with students – keep them updated.

  4. Keep parents/carers and the community informed.

  5. Update your online safety skills.

1. Assess the safety risks of any online platforms or tools used with students.

In the rush to deliver online learning in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, some schools and education authorities may not have had the opportunity to properly assess the risks for students, teachers, school leaders and parents. If that’s the case at your school, right now is the time to pause and do it — before any harm is experienced. eSafety has resources to make this process faster and easier in the Prepare section of our Toolkit for Schools, including an online safety self-assessment tool and tips for staff using social media.

Consider any additional specific risks to child safety that may arise from changes to usual school procedures and expectations of students and staff. Review your school’s readiness to address them — you may need to strengthen your current policies and procedures. It’s also essential to decide on mitigation strategies and how best to implement those.

Many schools are using online collaboration tools in response to COVID-19, including video conferencing platforms and learning management systems. These have specific child protection risks that require prevention and mitigation strategies. To set up as safely as possible and manage student behaviour online, we recommend you review eSafety’s new resource, Tips for using online collaboration tools. For example, it’s important to be familiar with how to shut down inappropriate chat and exit webinars properly. There’s also a helpful checklist for new technologies in the Prepare section of the Toolkit.

Ideally, the next step after assessing your school’s online safety risks would be to develop and implement a school community engagement plan and an education action plan.

However, we recognise that things are moving very quickly the moment. So if any harm has occurred already, the Respond section of the Toolkit will guide you through what to do.

2. Make policies and procedures clear and accessible to all staff

It’s critical to ensure all staff are familiar with the relevant policies and procedures and where to access them. These are likely to cover a range of issues, from acceptable use of social media and ICT resources  to privacy policies, professional standards, codes of conduct and mandatory reporting guidance.

Advice to staff about how to identify and report when a student is at risk of harm or has been harmed online should be complementary and included in your school’s normal child protection reporting obligations.

  • Teachers and schools should always refer to the relevant child protection agency in their jurisdiction for specific guidance on identifying and reporting a child at risk of harm, abuse or neglect.
  • All Australian governments expect schools to be implementing the National Principles for Child Safe Organisations to create child safe cultures and environments, including Principle 8 which requires that ‘physical and online environments promote safety and wellbeing while minimising the opportunity for children and young people to be harmed’.
  • Further support materials for the National Principles are available from the Australian Human Rights Commission.

What if something goes wrong?

All teachers must know what to do if students are exposed to harm while using online learning tools and techniques. This includes being aware of the school procedure for reporting incidents internally and externally and notifying parents, as well as appropriate student follow-up and referral to support pathways.
Teachers should keep written notes and other evidence such as screenshots if they have any concerns when interacting with students online or at any other time.

The Respond resources in the Toolkit offer advice on reporting requirements, preserving digital evidence, minimising further harm and supporting wellbeing.

Working online 1:1 – is it ok?

Working online 1:1 requires each school to consider carefully its own needs and context. eSafety recommends that staff, where possible, avoid 1:1 interaction with students via live video or audio.

There may be exceptions to this, for example some school staff such as counsellors or psychologists, careers advisors or music teachers may require 1:1 contact with students on an occasional or regular basis.

You should refer to your school’s policies on working alone with children, its relevant professional code of conduct and departmental or authority guidance on this.

Additional safeguards for working 1:1 with students may include ensuring:

  • clear documentation and scheduling
  • authorisation by a school leader
  • parental consent, and preferably a responsible adult at home at the time
  • availability of a contact person in case either participant has concerns during the session.

Check eSafety's new resource Working alone with children — online for further guidance.

3. Talk with students – keep them updated

Ensure students are given clear guidance and behavioural expectations for their online learning. This should include:

  • how to set up an appropriate home learning space
  • teacher contact times and classroom schedules
  • protocols for interacting with teachers and other students online
  • procedures to follow if they have a problem
  • consequences if they fail to meet expectations
  • support pathways when things go wrong.

What types of student support pathways are there?

As a general rule, eSafety recommends that you call Triple Zero (000) if a student is in immediate danger. If it is not an emergency but their personal safety is at risk, contact your local police.

Follow the policies and procedures of your school or authority if you think the student needs to access an internal and external support service. These include government and non-government organisations and other departments (for example, child protection agencies, law enforcement). Make sure you have the correct contact details handy.

In addition, eSafety provides support for children and young people to report online abuse.

  • Cyberbullying: eSafety can help remove material that seriously threatens, intimidates, harasses or humiliates a child or young person under 18. We also work with parents, schools and police to stop further cyberbullying.
  • Image-based abuse: if someone shares or threatens to share an intimate image or video of a person without their consent, eSafety can help to have it removed. In some cases, we can also impose civil penalties against the abuser or the platform they used.

eSafety lists a range of support services on our website. Kids Helpline is available 24/7 for children and young people aged 5 -25 years, providing confidential phone counselling on 1800 55 1800 and webchat counselling.

4. Keep parents/carers and the community informed

Work out how to keep parents/carers and the community informed about developments at your school without overloading them. Provide the critical information that parents need to support online safety at home. This may include:

  • setting clear expectations for students and parents/carers
  • providing advice on setting up filters and privacy settings
  • explaining how student activity and learning can be monitored
  • communicating regularly about online safety.

Schools can also share eSafety’s range of evidenced-based information and resources designed specifically for parents and carers.

  • The eSafety Commissioner’s open letter to parents and carers offers them tips for keeping themselves and their children safe online during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Our blogpost COVID-19: an online safety kit for parents and carers and COVID-19 advice booklet for parents and carers have a range of relevant information and links to more resources.
  • Telling parents and carers about our free Parent Webinars is a great way to engage them on the issue.
  • The Educate section of the Toolkit provides schools with tips for parent/carer education and engagement, including bite-size online safety information to share in school communications and on social media.
  • The Educate section of the Toolkit also has an engagement plan for involving the whole school community in online safety through shared decision-making, communication, collaboration and capacity building.

5. Update your online safety skills

eSafety is offering a series of scheduled professional learning webinars covering Online risks and protective factors from April to October. These free webinars are suitable for educators working with young people.

eSafety can also run webinars on other dates, for schools and organisations that are able to guarantee over 50 participants. Contact our Education team to find out more.

What’s next?

We are living in a time when the benefits of digital technology, including the ability to learn remotely, have never been more evident. Digital access is now an essential component of the human rights of children and young people — and most of their online interactions are positive and support their social development, relationships and education.

eSafety will continue to support educators, parents, carers and people working with children and young people, to ensure those benefits. We are committed to serving the Australian community by preventing, reducing and responding to online harms.

Please note: Information provided in this blogpost is general in nature. Your policies and procedures should be consistent with, and informed by, the policies and procedures of your relevant education department, sector or lead agency. If in doubt, contact them for clarification.