New Florida policy aids transgender students doing distance learning amid coronavirus

Emily Bloch, Florida Times Union

The abrupt switch from in-person classes to online learning hasn’t always been easy. From strained platforms handling hundreds of thousands of logins at a time, to disparities in technology access and sometimes excessive workloads, students have described feeling overwhelmed. But experts say it can be even worse for transgender students. 

Now, the school district in Jacksonville, Florida, is working to make things a little easier. 

When students log on to Duval HomeRoom — the Duval County school district’s online hub for distance learning — their school-assigned email account or a Microsoft TEAMS video session with their teacher, their legal name is displayed for all to see. For transgender students who go by a different name, it’s a constant sting.

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“Each and every time I log on to the website to complete my daily assignments, seeing my birth name makes me uncomfortable,” said one student, whom The Florida Times-Union did not name for privacy. “It also makes me uncomfortable to interact with other students, as well as my teachers because I don't want people to see my birth name on the screen, I want them to see my true one instead, that I plan to go by for the rest of my life.” 

The student said the practice makes day-to-day tasks like attendance a nuisance because they don’t want teachers and classmates to perceive them differently. 

But a new district policy is giving students the ability to request their affirmed name gets displayed instead.

For transgender and LGBTQ identifying students, distance learning comes with additional issues. Now, Duval County Public Schools is working to make things a little easier with a policy change.

“When home learning was launched due to the pandemic, the district developed a process to provide support in the virtual-learning environment,” Duval Schools spokeswoman Sonya Duke-Bolden said. “The district has been actively providing support to students whenever issues, concerns or challenges arise.”

The name display process has nothing to do with a student’s legal name, and students don’t have to have court documentation to make the request. It just allows a student to have their preferred name show up when they participate in any of the district’s online platforms. 

“No school districts in Florida are changing or removing a student’s legal name without a court order,” said Ian Siljestrom, the associate director of the Safe and Healthy Schools program at Equality Florida, a civil rights organization focused on the LGBTQ community. 

“School districts are simply adding an affirmed name within their existing student information system to ensure that legal names are not a barrier to student success. When an affirmed name is used, a student’s mental and emotional health improves, positively impacting their grades and attendance.”

Duke-Bolden said students who go by a nickname will also benefit from the process. 

To request a display name change, students can add their preferred name through their FOCUS account, the district’s grading software, Duke-Bolden said. From there, school principals are authorized to enter the name into the system. That display name will carry over onto FOCUS, other electronic forums used during online learning and the classroom when in-person learning resumes, the district said. 

"The district has a number of initiatives in place to provide supports for our LGBTQ students, including working with numerous local and national groups to develop best practices and guidance related to issues that may arise,“ Duke-Bolden said. ”The purpose is to ensure the safety and well-being of all of our students.“ 

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Duke-Bolden said similar measures are being implemented throughout the state. But the approval process varies county by county, and in some places experts say the steps taken are problematic. 

In northeast Florida's St. Johns County, a spokeswoman said name requests were handled on a case-by-case basis and a school counselor or social worker can approve the inquiry. 

But in Pinellas County on the state's Gulf Coast the district requires a parent signature if the student wants to change their “nickname” field and is a minor. 

According to Trinity Baker, student support coordinator at JASMYN — Jacksonville’s LGBTQ youth center — a parent sign-off is a red flag. 

“That would be an issue in outing students who we know don’t know the safety of their home environments,” she said. “I can see where we might see some pushback and negative responses to this, but we must trust our children to know themselves better than anyone else.” 

Some transgender students worry about their safety at school and in the community, so having their birth name appear on online programs — rather than the name they go by — can make them feel vulnerable. "Some of my classmates don't even know that I am transgender," one student said. "Seeing my birth name is a dead giveaway to that."

Duval and St. Johns public schools do not require parent signatures for the display name change request. 

According to The Trevor Project, a nonprofit that focuses on LGBTQ crisis and suicide prevention, usage of chosen names resulted in a 29% decrease in suicidal ideation and a 56% decrease in suicidal behavior for each additional context in which it was used. 

“Birth names showing up in online systems over chosen names seems like a serious concern,” said Rob Todaro, Trevor Project press secretary. “We know that affirming a trans young person's gender identity is essential to their mental health and wellness. A growing consensus of research clearly demonstrates that gender-affirming care produces positive mental health outcomes and overall psychological well-being while decreasing depressive symptoms and suicidality.”

It’s also a matter of safety. In many situations, classmates may not know a student is transgender. 

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“Some of my classmates don't even know that I am transgender,” the Duval County student said. "Seeing my birth name is a dead giveaway to that." 

The teen added that they weren’t sure which students would accept them as trans and which would perceive them “in a negative light” because of it, voicing a fear that some would even want to hurt them. 

“Thankfully, the implementation of this new policy can change all that and make me feel more comfortable with myself and interacting with others, while putting an ease to my concerns about safety,” the student said. 

How their name shows up to their peers is just one of several issues experts say transgender and LGBTQ identifying students are facing because of distance learning. 

According to a report by the Southern Poverty Law Center, LGBTQ youth are facing new hurdles during the pandemic including: additional time with unaccepting families or in unsafe environments, distance from support systems in Gay Straight Alliance clubs or friends at school that help them feel accepted, plus mental health issues. 

Siljestrom with Equality Florida said he’s seeing those concerned played out firsthand. 

“Many of our LGBTQ students have experienced distress being at home due to isolation, increased tension and abuse from hostile family members,” he said. “All youth deserve to have places and people to affirm, support and uplift them.”

This article originally appeared on Florida Times-Union: Coronavirus: Policy aids transgender students doing distance learning