Shifting Practice with LGBTQ+ Students: Responding to the COVID-19 Pandemic
Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and questioning (LGBTQ+) youth experienced health and academic disparities compared to their heterosexual and cisgender peers prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. The 2019 Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance (YRBS) conducted by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that LGBTQ+ high school students reported higher rates of feeling sad or hopeless, seriously considering suicide, and experiencing different forms of victimization, including bullying, physical, and sexual violence (CDC, 2020; Johns et al., 2019). Additionally, the 2019 GLSEN National School Climate Survey observed that LGBTQ+ students who experience higher rates of victimization based on their sexual orientation or gender expression report lower self-esteem and feelings of school belonging (Kosciw, Clark, Truong, & Zongrone, 2020). Socially based stigma queer youth endure at an individual, interpersonal, and institutional level contribute to these disparities (Goldback & Gibbs, 2017; Hatzenbuehler & Pachankis, 2016; Meyer, 2003).
Impact of COVID-19 on School Communities
The pandemic has created and exacerbated academic, financial, social, and emotional stress and inequities experienced by students and families. Currently, school districts throughout the United States provide entirely remote or hybrid instruction. Many lack consistent, organized efforts to support the mental health of students navigating this collective trauma (Phelps & Sperry, 2020). Although identifying the full impact of school closures will take time, the risk of increased and widening academic, physical, and mental health disparities amongst students with disabilities and students in poverty is evident (Masonbrink & Hurley, 2020).
It is prudent that school social workers work diligently to support LGBTQ+ students individually and at the school-wide level. We can achieve this goal by listening, creating virtual spaces of joy, and improving institutional practices that contribute to stress.
Schools, although sites of victimization, are also places where students feel safe to express their sexual and gender identities and receive mental health support and services. Due to the shift to remote learning, many LGBTQ+ are spending more time at home. Students who are not out to their families experience increased stress related to concealing aspects of their identity. Some students who are out face family rejection and harassment (Salerno, Devadas, Pease, Nketia, & Fish, 2020). However, LGBTQ+ students are not monolithic and not all queer and questioning students are experiencing heightened levels of distress.
The Importance of an Intersectional Approach
All students have intersecting identities. Therefore, refraining from making assumptions and using cultural humility will allow students to express their needs more easily. Since COVID-19 hit, there has been discussion of the impacts from employment to education to health care to housing. Initially many discussed the ways in which we are all experiencing communal loss and trauma, which to an extent is true; however, we are not “in the same boat.” Discourse continues to evolve and one of the more helpful metaphors for thinking about the impact of COVID-19 on students shifts the focus from the boat to the storm. In this metaphor, the storm of COVID-19 touches all of us, but depending on our positionality, we navigate this storm with varying levels of privilege, which affects our experiences and outcomes.
Racism throughout our institutions, including the health care and education systems, has always created and contributed to health and academic disparities . COVID-19 compounds and exacerbates these disparities and impacts the social determinants of health and social risk factors of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) (Egede, & Walker, 2020).
Therefore, we have an ethical imperative to challenge social injustice in society, schools, and within ourselves by examining own biases. Build upon existing frameworks to listen to stakeholders regarding their experiences with distance learning. Identify ways to get feedback from students not currently connected to the school. Use that feedback to co-create a more supportive school environment.
Create Spaces for Community that Center Joy
During these challenging times of social distancing and remote learning, everyone, especially young people, need opportunities and spaces to connect. School social workers, informed by conversations with students, families, and other staff, can identify which ways of engagement would best meet the needs and wants of the school community. These can be both informal “drop-in” spaces where students share music, TikTok videos, and show off their pets as well as formal events that center and highlight the joy and resilience of the school community, such as virtual dances, game nights, and talent shows.
Prior to distance learning, 44.9% of LGBTQ students experienced some form of electronic harassment (Kosciw, Clark, Truong, & Zongrone, 2020). With an increased amount of time online, there is a risk of increased harassment and victimization. However, there also exists an increase in community and support through online resources specifically designed for LGBTQ+ students such as TrevorSpace and QChatSpace (Fish, McInroy, Paceley, Williams, Henderson, Levine, & Edsall, 2020). School social workers can share resources as well as transition existing clubs and groups supporting LGBTQ+ students, such as Genders and Sexualities Alliances (GSAs) to virtual spaces or create virtual spaces specifically for queer students.
While working with queer students individually or in a group setting, there should be frequent conversations about confidentiality and their level of privacy when logging on. Creating group agreements specific to distance learning helps empower students to take ownership of their online communities and to identify their comfort level with certain discussion topics and modes of communication. Currently, many students work from home with family members and could be outed by their participation in certain groups or conversations. School social workers can support students in thinking about who can see or hear what they are doing on the computer, determine the best way for them to get support, and safety plan if necessary. Providing students with headphones, encouraging them to use the chat feature, and meeting at a time that best works for them are all ways to navigate supporting students remotely.
Challenge School and District Practices
Technology provides students with peer interaction and connection during this pandemic; however, it may also cause stress for many students as well. In 2019, 22.8% of students were prevented from using their correct name and pronouns by their school (Kosciw, Clark, Truong, & Zongrone, 2020). As students learn online, district assigned emails and usernames are more prominent in their interactions with teachers and peers. Depending on security settings, students may automatically be listed on Zoom or other platforms under the wrong name. Advocate within the district that students have the ability to change this to their correct name on these platforms. School district anti-harassment and bullying policies that directly address protections for students based on sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression can be used as a teaching tool and supportive document to have these conversations with school staff and students.
These supports and considerations for working with LGBTQ+ students during distance and hybrid learning will benefit all students. The disparities, stressors, and risks that queer students currently face are real and important to monitor. It is also just as important to identify and celebrate moments of joy, resilience, and community. Listen to queer students and follow their lead.
Center for Disease Control and Prevention. (2020, August 21). Youth risk behavior surveillance-2019. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report Supplement, 69(1). https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/69/su/pdfs/su6901-H.pdf
Egede, L.E., & Walker, R. (2020). Structural racism, social risk factors, and COVID19 – A dangerous convergence for black americans. New England Journal of Medicine, 383(12), e77(1-3). doi:10.1056/NEJMp2023616
Fish, J.N., McInroy, L.B., Paceley, M.S., Williams, N.D., Henderson, S., Levine, D., & Edsall, R.N. (2020). “I’m kinda stuck at home with unsupportive parents right now”: LGBTQ youths’ experiences with COVID-19 and the importance of online support. Journal of Adolescent Health, 67, 450-452. doi:10.1016/j.adohealth.2020.06.002
Johns, M.M., Lowry, R., Andrzejewski, J., Barrios, L.C., Demissie, Z., McManus, T., Raspberry, C., Robin, L., & Underwood, M. (2019). Transgender identity and experiences of violence victimization, substance use, suicide risk, and sexual risk behaviors among high school students-19 states and large urban school districts, 2017. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, 68(3), 67-71. doi:10.15585/mmwr.mm6803a3
Kosciw, J., Clark, C.M., Truong, N.L., & Zongrone, A.D. (2020). The 2019 national school climate survey: The experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer youth in our nation’s schools. GLSEN.
Masonbrink, A.R., & Hurley, E. (2020). Advocating for children during the COVID-19 school closures. Pediatrics Perspective, 146(3). doi:10.1542/peds.2020-1440
Phelps, P., & Sperry, L. L. (2020). Children and the COVID19 pandemic. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, 12(S1), S73-S75. doi:10.1037/tra0000861
Salerno, J.P., Devadas, J., Pease, M., Nketia, B., & Fish, J.N. (2020). Sexual and gender minority stress amid the COVID-19 pandemic: Implications for LGBTQ young persons’ mental health and well-being. Public Health Reports, 135(6), 721-727. doi:10.1177/ 0033 3549 20954511