In this March 13, 2020 file photo, children head home after the last day of school before spring break, and eventual closure due to the coronaviurs outbreak, outside Russell Elementary School in Moscow, Idaho. Credit: Geoff Crimmins | AP

Click here for the latest coronavirus news, which the BDN has made free for the public. You can support our critical reporting on the coronavirus by purchasing a digital subscription or donating directly to the newsroom.

April is Child Abuse Prevention Month, a time every year when we raise awareness and recognize the need to act collectively to ensure the health, safety and well-being of all Maine children. But this year, awareness is particularly significant given the changes to our daily lives in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. Maine people are following recommendations to physically distance ourselves, and at the same time, many of our children, families and communities are struggling.

The COVID-19 pandemic may be causing increased stress and anxiety for families and youth, and our support will help to prevent and mitigate any increased risks to their safety and well-being. Now, more than ever, we have a responsibility to tune into and respond to the needs of parents and families.

[Our COVID-19 tracker contains the most recent information on Maine cases by county]

Our hardworking educators have always served a key role in the prevention of abuse and neglect, making on average over 20 percent of the reports of abuse and/or neglect that the Maine Department of Health and Human Services receives in a year. But they and their students face new challenges, with many school districts announcing that they are ending in-person classroom instruction for the remainder of the school year.

That’s why the DHHS Office of Child and Family Services has partnered with the Maine Department of Education to develop and disseminate guidance and an infographic for educators and other professionals about how to recognize risk factors and spot signs of abuse and neglect in a remote learning setting. This includes regularly engaging with children and their caregivers, and making clear how educators can be contacted. Children thrive on knowing what to expect, and this is particularly important now as they are surrounded by uncertainty and stress in our world and their homes.

But our educators, who face their own challenges at this time, can’t prevent abuse and neglect alone. Much of this guidance can also be helpful to anyone who interacts with children and families. All Maine residents can be advocates for youth who may be experiencing trauma in the form of abuse and/or neglect and take steps to reduce the stress on parents during this time.

Check in on your neighbors and ensure they have what they need. Talk with friends and be an outlet to discuss frustration and anxiety. Be curious and ask questions of children and caregivers about how they’re doing, what’s going well and what concerns them about their current environment. For example, ask children: How are you feeling? What was the best/hardest part of your day? What did you have for breakfast? What do you like best about being home? What do you miss about being at school? What worries you? Talk to children and let them know that feeling “upside down” right now is normal and to be expected.

And remember to give yourself an extra dose of compassion and care during these challenging days.

As always, if you have concerns regarding the care and supervision of a child, contact the Office of Child and Family Services at 800-452-1999. Staff are available to take your calls 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Dedicated caseworkers are also properly prepared to continue to investigate reports of suspected abuse and neglect and taking steps when necessary to ensure the safety and well-being of Maine children.

Mainers have a long history of working together to face challenges and protect those most vulnerable among us. We’ll live up to that history in the face of this unprecedented pandemic by remaining vigilant to keep Maine children and families healthy and safe.

For more information and additional resources regarding the impact of COVID-19 on families and children, visit the Office of Child and Family Services website and the website of Gov. Janet Mills’ Children’s Cabinet.

Todd Landry is the director of the Maine Department of Health and Human Services Office of Child and Family Services. Pender Makin is the Commissioner of the Maine Department of Education.