COVID Shaming: The New Face of Bullying in School?

The fight to stop the rumor mill.

Group of high school students at school wearing N95 Face masks
Teenage boys and girls wearing N95 face masks standing in front of world map. Angry high school students at school.

The classroom door opens, and an administrator or counselor announces a name. This used to be accompanied by “Ooooh! You’re in trouble and going to the office!” Now there is a hush and sideways glances. Everyone knows that the student is headed for two weeks of quarantine. Around the country, schools still conducting in-person learning have to deal with notifying close contacts of COVID-positive classmates.

Unfortunately, calling a student out in class often starts a spread of gossip too. Kids are naturally curious. They wonder who was exposed. Did someone test positive? Who else did they give it to? But the curiosity doesn’t stop there. It’s turning into COVID gossip, teasing, and bullying at school.

COVID restrictions result in pressure to conform

Some of the gossip flies under the radar as kids Snapchat, text, and DM each other. They try to figure out “who put them in quarantine.” Other cases are more overtly cruel, calling out specific individuals. Students who knew they had symptoms but came to school anyway seem to have it the worst. Unfortunately, since the number of kids who have contracted COVID-19 during the pandemic just tipped over the one million mark , the issue probably won’t improve anytime soon.

Michael Kinsey, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist and author in Manhattan. He isn’t all that surprised by these incidents and other COVID-19 related issues. “It’s natural that kids of all ages will emulate angry displays of dominance that they see in the news, in social media, and possibly hear at home,” he said, indicating that these incidents are the result of the adults’ anxiety and “hyper-politicized” discourse as well. 

He said students work to find what they can control, or their “agency” in this situation. He also discusses the battle adults and students are having between expressing individual rights versus protecting public health and the greater good. “… People do differ in which of these takes precedence given the limited and imperfect data that exists (or that each person knows and understands),” he said. One student may pressure another to wear a mask to protect public health. Another may pressure others not to wear them to assert their individual rights. In the end, he says it mainly comes down to students “vying for social status.”



Increasing privacy to protect against gossip

Some schools are working to mitigate the information flow by increasing privacy during these quarantine conversations and beyond. Eric Hartfelder, principal of Eakin Elementary in Nashville, TN, is aware of the potential for gossip and rumors surrounding quarantining kids. He has a conference room where soon-to-be quarantined students wait, and he says he is conscientious of the social cues others take from small details surrounding this practice. Students know someone is inside if the door is shut. So, as the door opens, he strategically places the waiting child such that other students cannot see or identify them.

“If it was my son I wouldn’t want people going ‘Is that someone who is infected?’” he said. In addition, his school doesn’t participate in video calls with quarantined students. The goal is to maintain their privacy, as well as the privacy of those in the classroom. Instead, assignments are online.

Ignorance leads to further bullying

High school students seem to have more interest in finding out the details of who came to school potentially or actually exposed, and whether they knew about their symptoms or not. One high schooler, Madison Koroschetz (15) from a suburban high school near Cincinnati, OH, explained, “A lot of people definitely want to know who it was…and if they find out it’s a negative reaction most of the time. I think most of it is because they assume that person who got corona[virus] wasn’t following the rules.” 

She has also witnessed social media posts defending the person in question, saying, “Guys it’s not your fault and you can’t be mad at them for that.” She attributes much of the problem to ignorance towards how coronavirus works, including the fact that it can be asymptomatic, and says kids “just don’t know or haven’t tried to figure it out, or look it up and do research because they don’t care and think it doesn’t affect them.” 

Finally, Koroschetz attributes the negative reactions to a greater issue about other students not wanting to be quarantined: “A lot of people are getting behind during quarantine. One reason is you lose motivation. You aren’t going every day, seeing your friends, doing things you normally do,” she said.  The social and emotional challenges of quarantining can be challenging.

The long-term effects of COVID shaming

Kinsey warns that this era of shaming others and speaking negatively about other students may have long term effects. “…Much more attention needs to be given to the socioemotional consequences of masks, quarantine, and distance learning vs. in-person learning. The public health consequences on children stemming from public anxiety surrounding COVID, deviations from established practices in socioemotional development, and disruptions in learning could be substantial in years to come.”

What are your thoughts on COVID bullying at school? Share in the comments below. 

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COVID Shaming: The New Face of Bullying in School?