Pandemic collides with concerns about LGBTQ students' mental health

Editor’s Note: Welcome to Weekly Education: Coronavirus special edition. Each week, we will explore how the pandemic is reshaping and upe...


Editor’s Note: Welcome to Weekly Education: Coronavirus special edition. Each week, we will explore how the pandemic is reshaping and upending education as we know it across the country, from pre-K through grad school. We will explore the debates of the day, new challenges and talk to movers and shakers about whether changes ushered in now are here to stay.

This newsletter is a weekly version of POLITICO Pro’s daily Education policy newsletter, Morning Education. POLITICO Pro is a policy intelligence platform that combines the news you need with tools you can use to take action on the day’s biggest stories. Act on the news with POLITICO Pro.

REMOTE SCHOOLING TAKES A TOLL ON NATION’S LGBTQ YOUTH Thousands of LGBTQ students are navigating their gender identities while their critical supports like friends, teachers and school groups have been thrown onto the Zoom-sphere due to the pandemic.

Some of them are grappling with having to reel back their gender identity and exploration while at home because they’re not out to their parents. Others are dealing with being misgendered or being called by the wrong name in virtual classrooms because the technology doesn’t allow them to change their legal name. Students are also unable to linger after class to develop relationships with teachers who often become some of their greatest advocates.

These students, who are at a higher risk for poor mental health and suicide compared with their peers, are as a result especially struggling to find affirmation. While research is being conducted on the pandemic’s effect on LGBTQ youth and their mental health, suicide prevention nonprofit The Trevor Project said the number of people accessing its crisis support has significantly increased and, at times, been nearly double its pre-Covid volume.

Being disconnected from in-person supports could mean additional hurdles for students who are already fragile, but it also could push schools to reckon with a greater need for mental health services.

IT’S MONDAY, DEC. 14. WELCOME TO MORNING EDUCATION. Let’s grab virtual coffee. And reach out to my colleagues, Nicole Gaudiano at [email protected], Juan Perez Jr. at [email protected] or Michael Stratford at [email protected]. And follow us on Twitter: @Morning_Edu and @POLITICOPro.

What changes should schools make to better combat mental health issues among students? Let us know and we’ll publish some of your answers a week from today.

Last week, we asked: Where do you think school workers should fall in the long line to access a Covid-19 vaccine? How would you respond if vaccines were required for school workers — or students? Here’s what some of you told us:

“If it is critical that schools reopen, in a meaningful and consistent way, then it is essential that school workers be given priority for the vaccine. Additionally, further prioritization should go to vulnerable school employees who would otherwise not be able to come to work. Consideration must also be given to students with conditions that may cause them to become severely ill should they contract COVID. It is senseless to not pair vaccine access with safe reopenings especially in light of the second wave we are experiencing.” — Stacey Gauthier, principal and executive director at The Renaissance Charter School, Queens, N.Y.

“Educators and school staff should follow right behind first responders in receiving the vaccine. We must make our schools as safe as possible so all classes can be in person where students have the best chance of mastering a subject. In NYC, where I taught for 25 years and where my own children attended school, vaccinations were required before a student could even enter the system. I believe in keeping every child safe and free from the fear of childhood illnesses. That’s why we believe in the science that goes behind these vaccines.” — Nancy A. Bongiovanni, retired reading specialist, Southampton, N.Y.

FROM THE STUDENTS LGBTQ youth say they are experiencing increased loneliness, anxiety and depression since the pandemic began, according to a poll from The Trevor Project and Morning Consult. Forty-one percent also said the pandemic has affected their ability to express their identity, including more than half of transgender and nonbinary youth.

“Before this year, a lot of how I came out to friends and teachers and people was indirectly,” said Jaiden Blancaflor, a high school senior in California. They worked with their Gay-Straight Alliance group at school, which gave people signs about their gender identity without ever spelling it out. “But you can’t do that with online school, or at least it’s a lot more difficult,” Blancaflor said.

Reggie Eaton, a high school senior in Wisconsin, said their mental health suffered at the beginning of the pandemic because it was difficult to process what was happening. Online learning became more manageable over time, but “I typically like talk to my friends in person about ‘this is what gender is like for me,’ but I can’t meet with them,” Eaton said. “And if I do it’s like for maybe 40 minutes, and we’re outside, and it’s becoming more difficult because it’s going to snow here any minute now.”

Blancaflor and Eaton, members of GLSEN’s National Student Council, said they remain connected to their friends through social media. But the pandemic has cut participation in groups such as Gay-Straight Alliances, meant to be support networks for LGBTQ students — especially if a student has yet to come out to their family. (GLSEN was formerly the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network.)

“It’s way harder now to talk to friends for relationship advice or talk to teachers about what they’re feeling and to get resources,” Blancaflor said. “It’s just a whole lot harder to attend GSA meetings if you don’t have your own room, and those safe spaces and resources are so essential for figuring out who you are.”

Student advice for the digital classroom: “We encourage teachers to do the little things: add a safe space sticker to your digital classroom, ask students to add their pronouns to their Zoom names and to state them when they introduce themselves, have LGBTQ+ resources readily available for students to access and offer out-of-class spaces to strengthen relationships with students,” Blancaflor and Eaton wrote for The Hechinger Report.

CYBERSECURITY SIDE EFFECTS — But something as simple sounding as letting students tweak their Zoom identities is a bigger hurdle for schools than it may seem. “Schools have become the prime targets for hacking — they’re being hacked, and their data is being held for ransom,” said Dan Domenech, executive director of AASA, The School Superintendents Association. Changing a student’s name can undermine a school’s ability to keep intruders out of its system, because it becomes difficult to know whether someone should have access or not.

“They basically have to go with the information that they have on the record at this particular point in time, and making changes to that at this time is problematic, again, because of all of the cybersecurity concerns,” Domenech said.

“A lot of the talk about the pandemic is focusing around the loss of learning, and yes the loss of learning is without doubt a problem and it’s something that needs to be dealt with,” he said. “But more important than that, really, is the mental health or social, emotional well being of students. And the schools are just not equipped and the situation doesn’t allow it.”

It’s a challenge that must be solved, said Keygan Miller, senior advocacy associate for The Trevor Project. “We need to figure out a way to have school records reflect a student’s legal name, but also then reflect the name that they go by. … This is a really great time, while we’re looking at technology in so many ways to look at that and also how do we put in preferred pronouns.”

LGBTQ STUDENTS’ MENTAL HEALTH WOES About 40 percent of LGBTQ youth have seriously considered attempting suicide, according to a Trevor Project national survey of 40,000 LGBTQ young people ages 13-24 across the country. Forty-six percent of respondents said they wanted mental health counseling but were unable to receive it.

There are successful ways to lower suicide risk, according to another survey from the group, which found that affirming school environments had the strongest association with reduced odds of suicide attempts. And LGBTQ youth who had at least one LGBTQ-affirming space had 35 percent reduced odds. Sixty-two percent of LGBTQ youth enrolled in schools said their school was LGBTQ-affirming. Only 43 percent reported that their home was an LGBTQ-affirming space.

“Unfortunately, not all LGBTQ youth experience acceptance of their identity, and physical distancing policies implemented to minimize the health risks of the COVID-19 pandemic can disrupt access to existing affirming spaces,” the report said. The group expects to publish new data on the pandemic’s effect on some of these issues next month.

Young people who identify as heterosexual are far less likely to have suicidal thoughts than their LGBTQ peers, CDC data shows.

DEVOS’ RECORD During the Obama administration, the Office for Civil Rights urged schools to extend anti-bullying policies to protect LGBTQ students, called on schools to allow LGBTQ student groups on campuses, and cited Title IX to protect transgender students’ right to use bathrooms and locker rooms that aligned with their gender identity.

Within months of President Donald Trump taking office, those Obama-era directives on bathrooms and locker rooms were scrapped. The Trump administration argued the “Dear Colleague Letter” did not “undergo any formal public process” prior to its release, and “has given rise to significant litigation regarding school restrooms and locker rooms.” This was despite Trump saying on the 2016 campaign trail that transgender people should be able to use any bathroom they want.

The Trump administration maintained that schools must protect LGBTQ students from bullying and more, something Education Secretary Betsy DeVos pushed for despite rescinding the previous administration’s guidance. “Please note that this withdrawal of these guidance documents does not leave students without protections from discrimination, bullying or harassment,” the letter said. “All schools must ensure that all students, including LGBT students, are able to learn and thrive in a safe environment.”

President-elect Joe Biden has vowed to reinstate Education Department guidance protecting the rights of transgender students.

WHAT LGBTQ+ STUDENT ADVOCACY GROUPS WANT FROM BIDEN GLSEN, which works to make K-12 schools more LGBTQ+ inclusive, rolled out its policy recommendations for Biden and the next Congress. Executive Diretor Eliza Byard told your host last month reverting to the Obama-era guidance on Day One would be hugely effective.

Other GLSEN recommendations: form an interagency task force on LGBTQ+ students; appoint a National Center for Education Statistics commissioner to implement interagency standards on sexual orientation and gender identity; create an Office of Equity in the White House Domestic Policy Council; and direct OMB to establish data collection standards on sexual orientation and gender identity.

The Trevor Project wants the Education Department to provide more guidance for mental health and suicide prevention in schools, Miller said. “We want to encourage the administration to make sure that all schools are adopting a school suicide prevention policy, so that way teachers know what to do when [students] are in crisis and need extra support.”

LEGAL CHALLENGES ABOUND The pandemic and Trump Education Department may be working against LGBTQ+ students, but the courts are going in the opposite direction.

Parents for Privacy v. Barr: The Supreme Court decided not to hear a case aimed at ending an Oregon school district’s policy of allowing transgender students to use bathrooms and locker rooms that match their gender identity. It was touted as a win by civil rights groups that worried the high court’s new conservative majority on the bench would threaten LGBTQ equality.

Bostock v. Clayton County: The high court ruled in June that a key federal law prohibiting discrimination in the workplace protects gay, lesbian or transgender employees from being disciplined or fired based on their sexual orientation. The ruling was widely expected to have bearing on Title IX enforcement. The Education Department, however, said the ruling “does not control” its interpretation of Title IX rules on discriminating based on sex, but also said it now has the authority to investigate Title IX complaints from LGBTQ students if they are discriminated against on the basis of their biological sex because of their sexual orientation. Advocates want Biden to clarify this view.

Grimm v. Gloucester County School Board: In August, the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Gavin Grimm, a transgender man who sued his Virginia high school for barring him from using the boys restroom. The long-running legal fight has become a flashpoint in the battle over LGBTQ rights in education.

COURT BATTLES IN A NEW ARENA Newer cases challenge transgender student policies related to participating in athletics that match students’ gender identity.

Hecox v. Little: A federal judge temporarily blocked an Idaho law that bars transgender women from participating in school sports and requires testing if an athlete’s sex is in question.The lawsuit was filed on behalf of track athlete Lindsay Hecox, who is transgender. Lawyers on behalf of the state appealed the decision to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, and the case is now paused, pending the appeal.

Soule v. Connecticut Association of Schools, Inc.: The Alliance Defending Freedom is suing Connecticut’s high school sports authority and five school boards over a state policy that allows students to play on teams that match their gender identity. The group, which is suing on behalf of three high school track athletes and their mothers, say the policy violates Title IX. The Education Department also threatened the sports authority and school boards with legal action or a loss of funding because it determined that the transgender athlete policy violated Title IX.

CONGRESS HOPS INTO TITLE IX DEBATE — Congress is in on the Title IX game: Reps. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) and Markwayne Mullin (R-Okla.) introduced the Protect Women’s Sports Act, H.R. 8932 (116), which is intended to keep students who are assigned male at birth from participating on girls’ sports teams, under the auspices of protecting opportunities for female athletes. Under the measure, schools that don’t comply would lose access to federal funding. “Our legislation protects Title IX’s original intent, which was based on the general biological distinction between men and women athletes based on sex,” Gabbard said.

Gabbard, who campaigned for the Democratic presidential nomination, did not run for reelection this year. She apologized for her anti-LGBTQ rhetoric when she supported her father Mike Gabbard’s comments advocating against gay rights in Hawaii in the 1990s. Gabbard said she had changed her views and repeatedly voted in Congress to protect gay rights.

The Senate got there first: In September, Sens. Kelly Loeffler (R-Ga.), Mike Lee (R-Utah), Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), James Lankford (R-Okla.) and Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) introduced the Protection of Women and Girls in Sports Act. Under the measure, similar to the House bill, “schools that allow biological males to compete against women and girls in sports” would be “in danger of losing federal funding.”

“Title IX established a fair and equal chance for women and girls to compete, and sports should be no exception,” Loeffler said, who faces a competitive runoff election in Georgia in January. Neither bill is expected to advance in the waning days of the 116th Congress but set a marker for the new session.

— In final years at Liberty, Falwell spent millions on pro-Trump causes: POLITICO

— Purdue made it through the fall. Does that mean Mitch Daniels was right? The Chronicle of Higher Education

— NEA responds to criticism from disability rights groups: POLITICO

— Ball State President Geoffrey Mearns tests positive for Covid: Ball State Daily News

— Peer-led punishment for flouting pandemic rules: Inside Higher Ed



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Newsrust: Pandemic collides with concerns about LGBTQ students' mental health
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