The closing of New Jersey schools for the rest of this academic year has left students across the state with mixed emotions, but for children who have been bullied in school, staying home has been a respite.

Yet despite this moment of relief, according to Rutgers University psychology professor Maurice Elias, concerns remain about what will happen when both bullies and the kids they torment walk back into the same classrooms.

Elias said parents can usually detect red flags when their kids are being picked on, but schools need to do their part as well, bolstered by New Jersey's stringent laws against harassment, intimidation, and bullying — which the bullies don't know by heart, but parents and administrators should.

"Parents do need to be alert to signs that their kids are hesitant about going back to school, if they seem unusually nervous or something. We need to talk to them about it," Elias said. "Especially when we come back, schools should have a 'new normal' of empathic understanding, kindness and compassion."

It's possible, Elias said, that bullies could use the time away from a school environment to turn over a new leaf, but more likely he said their prior transgressions are evidence of emotional issues that need to be addressed with counseling either in or out of school. Plus, there is nothing to suggest that cyberbullying has not continued right through this crisis.

"You would like to think that the kids who are bullies might be developing more compassion," Elias said. "I don't really know if that's happening; we may not know that until schools open up and we see how kids adapt."

When in-person schooling resumes, Elias said it is likely that the children bullies targeted before schools closed won't be the ones they go after upon returning. The reasons why are known only to the bullies themselves.

But bullying should never get to what Elias calls an "extreme level." Parents should be watching their kids and how they communicate, and at the first sign of a potential problem, they should go directly to the school. Each school, as well, should be widening its radar screen to survey lunch aides, bus drivers, and secretarial and janitorial staffs to get as full a picture as possible of the student body environment.

"Our school professionals are incredibly competent, and able to do a lot with kids, but there are so many kids that they often can't devote the amount of time that a particular kid might need," Elias said.

Last year's report from the New Jersey School Boards Association's Task Force on Mental Health Services in Public Schools may prove instructive, according to Elias, in not only navigating the shifting bullying landscape but also handling the aftereffects of COVID-19 trauma.

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