Through the unsettled ending of the last school year, to the unprecedented beginning of this one, school communities continue to exist in a state of flux. Some districts are using fully remote learning models to start, some are opting for hybrid models, while others are implementing new safety protocols to begin in-person learning. All are working through a new way of doing school, and all plans are subject to changing local situations.
As schools navigate the challenges ahead—and with parents and guardians stepping in as learning coaches and facilitators in remote and hybrid environments—communicating with families is playing an outsized role in successfully adapting to this nontraditional school year.
A National Shift in the Relationship Between Schools, Parents and Guardians
A spring survey of more than 3,600 U.S. parents and guardians from Learning Heroes, a nonprofit focused on helping families support their children, found parents are now, more than ever, activated to support their learners. Eighty-four percent said they felt “very” or “completely” prepared to support their child with doing schoolwork at home.
Source: Learning Heroes, Parents 2020: COVID-19 Closures - A Redefining Moment for Students, Parents and Schools
“From their new front-row seat and despite significant challenges, parents are engaging deeply in their children's remote schooling and will show up differently next school year,” write the authors.
However, less than half of parents in the survey said they received key resources—including expectations for schoolwork—from their districts. “This is a moment to establish clear expectations for parent, teacher relationships grounded in a shared understanding of the child’s progress and academic achievement,” the report authors added.
It’s a priority for many U.S. school districts. In 84 of 124 reopening plans (68 percent) analyzed by the Center for Reinventing Public Education, a research organization affiliated with the University of Washington, the district is offering guidance or training to parents on how to help students learn at home. Twenty-four districts have said they will be sharing data about students’ learning to families.
To do that, though, school communication toolkits must go beyond the regular email blasts, robocalls, or emergency updates schools are used to sending. Those are still necessary, but it’s important to focus on productive two-way communication between families and school to establish a new type of relationship—one that supports student academic success as well as health and safety.
How Monterey Peninsula USD Is Building Strong Connections Virtually
Monterey Peninsula School District (MPUSD) in California is a member of The Learning Accelerator’s Strategy Lab cohort, a network of seven districts that are developing and sharing return-to-school preparations in response to COVID-19, and planning for long-term sustainable change beyond the pandemic. The district has been trying out communication practices families are craving during this time and will continue to be valuable in the future.
Beginning in the spring, MPUSD Superintendent, PK Diffenbaugh, and Marci McFadden, Chief of Communication and Engagement, recognized that families would require more information than ever about nearly every aspect of schooling, as well as need more opportunities to ask questions due to the uncertainty brought on by the pandemic. While classic communication strategy suggests that “less is more,” in this moment in time, over-communicating proved to be a much better strategy.
“(Do not) underestimate your community’s desire to hear from you and to connect with them early and often. Even if you don’t have everything figured out, sharing what you’re working on and where you’re at can help your school families,” said Superintendent Diffenbaugh.
As part of their strategy, MPUSD launched a live Q&A on Zoom for families with multiple time options as well as meetings in Spanish and English to make them more accessible. Turnout was so high that the team created “We’re Better Together Wednesdays,” a virtual weekly seminar for families to understand more about topics they’ve expressed most interest in, including using Google Classroom and Zoom, and overcoming anxiety during COVID-19.
Before the pandemic, MPUSD was also sending weekly 60-second highlight videos called “MPUSD Minute.” They’re shared on Fridays via email and social media and have become a routine communication outlet for the district that families are engaging with. Each video is a district snapshot of news, upcoming events, and other important info for the community, delivered in a short, fast-paced, and easily-shareable format.
As the district starts the school year with remote instruction, the continuation of these efforts found a warm reception. “At a time when there is so much uncertainty in the face of our on-going shelter-in-place orders due to the coronavirus pandemic, I really appreciate MPUSD's efforts to communicate with families,” shared Camilla Mann, the parent of a junior at Monterey High School.
“When it was clear that our students would not be returning to school buildings this fall, MPUSD took action to quickly share out information with families,” Mann added. “District staff compiled an FAQ document that we could peruse at our leisure, and repeatedly as needed. Continuing to keep families in the loop as the school year progresses, we get emails from the District level, from our school site leads, and from each and every teacher that my student has this year.”
Parents also clearly appreciated the message that the district and families were all in this together. “I attended the virtual boardroom and town halls. It was clear to me that the decisions made were thoroughly researched and thought out, based on scientific medical data and an understanding of the people in our community,” said Emily Corey, another MPUSD parent.
The district team plans to keep these types of communication events going even post-pandemic as ways to maintain engagement with families and the school community.
Other Ways to Reach Families
While fully remote or hybrid learning can present challenges to building connections with parents and guardians, there are still opportunities to meaningfully connect with families. In the past, live school events may have been difficult for some to attend, especially those with work conflicts. Here are a few examples of different virtual touch points that districts are offering:
Monthly virtual town halls provide an opportunity for guardians and families to bring forward any questions or concerns they have, share best practices and feel connected. For example, DC Public Schools hosts Twitter town halls that allow families to get answers to their at-home learning questions and hear important announcements from district leaders.
Technology training for parents and caregivers can help those at home gain the knowledge they need to support learning at home. At Breakthrough Public Schools in Ohio, for example, families have access to private technology support sessions over Zoom in 15-minute blocks.
Multi-channel communication. According to the Learning Heroes report, parents said text messages and phone calls as the most effective means of communication. But districts are also trying other mediums to engage with families consistently and often. Facebook has built-in surveying options, as well as live broadcasting and engagement tools. Renton School District in Washington includes inspirational videos from its students on its Facebook page, in addition to important updates and news.
Tools that encourage two-way communication. MPUSD uses Parent Square to not only share messages with families, but also allow them to comment and write back. (It will even translate incoming and outbound messages.) Salt Lake City School District in Utah has a robust “Contact Us” page on its website promoting two-way communication and building trust among stakeholders.
Translate important information shared through video, websites, or documents. Districts like Denver Public Schools have prioritized translating content most relevant for the upcoming school year by offering a drop-down menu that offers the information in ten different languages. DC Public Schools has taken a similar approach, including offering translation on its forms that stakeholders submit.
This school year will be like nothing teachers, leaders, students and their families have experienced before. As MPUSD has demonstrated, schools really can’t over communicate this year, and should use this opportunity to build on the new kind of relationship schools and families are experiencing. Helping families feel supported, empowered and part of your school community with clear, consistent and transparent communication will send the message that they are a critical part of the team working for their student’s success.