• by Terrence Wilson, J.D. • IDRA Newsletter • August 2020 •

Since the COVID-19 pandemic caused schools to close in early 2020, families took on a new role in the educational activities of their children. Many, though, experienced a lack of authentic engagement with teachers and school administrators that left some parents with mixed feelings about their students’ educations.

IDRA surveyed educators, families and students as the 2019-20 school year closed. Parents reported fear that their children would fall behind and anxiety related to their ability to help their students with coursework and instruction. One parent, echoing many others, stated: “I am not a teacher. I don’t know how to effectively present the lessons and necessarily make them engaging for my child. I am also working from home full time!”

Key themes in parents’ responses to IDRA’s survey were:

  • Difficulty helping students with instruction;
  • Fears of students falling behind;
  • Lack of access to materials either virtually or physically;
  • Lots of communication from schools that can be overwhelming;
  • Fears around students missing out on social-emotional activities with peers; and
  • At-home stress (“Having problems feeding my family”).

These sentiments encapsulate the environment in homes across the country. According to the Parents 2020: COVID-19 Closures survey, administered by Learning Heroes, parents and guardians of students in K-12 students reported that parents feel more appreciation for teachers, but most do not have regular access to them: “While parents felt more connected to their children’s day-to-day learning (67%), only about 33% of them reported having regular access to teachers.” (2020)

Ironically, in the spring, many schools had to pause their planned family engagement activities despite their heightened need to connect with families to support student learning.

At the same time, teachers expressed their concerns with teaching virtually with little training and little opportunities to engage with families. One respondent stated: “Everything has shifted to online resources with little teacher input. At the same time, teachers are expected to figure things out on their own in terms of continuing to teach lessons and preparing the students for exams.”

Ironically, in the spring, many schools had to pause their planned family engagement activities despite their heightened need to connect with families to support student learning.

Educators responding to IDRA’s survey called for better connectivity for teachers and students since, during virtual learning due to COVID-19, students interact better online than with paper materials. One teacher stated: “My students need access to computers at a 1-to-1 ratio. Currently, families with even three or four students are expected to share a single device while receiving instruction 100% online.”

As this school year begins, educators and families will both benefit from authentic engagement to support student learning and well-being. Engagement with low-income and non-English speaking families is especially important given the significant barriers that these students and families already must overcome to engage with schools (Montemayor, 2019).

In late May, the IDRA EAC-South held a virtual meeting with education agency leaders representing five states – Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, South Carolina and Tennessee – about family engagement strategies during the pandemic. The leaders discussed the difficulty agencies have in reaching parents who are dealing with the real health and financial ramifications of the pandemic. Nevertheless, agency staff across the country continue to innovate and invest in family engagement efforts to ensure school leaders understand students’ needs as they reopen schools.

Given the importance of family engagement to the crucial decisions facing education leaders, several states have begun to focus on engaging with families to plan for the future. For example, the Virginia Department of Education will use $300,000 of the $23.9 million that it will receive from the federal pandemic relief package (CARES Act) to support state-coordinated family engagement and family literacy activities during the closure and phased reopening of schools to strengthen the remote-learning environment and support the transition of students back to the classroom. (2020)

Other examples include the Alabama Department of Education, which launched a survey for parents and educators to determine how the state should spend CARES Act funding (2020), and the Florida Department of Education, which launched a survey to collect opinions from families and students to understand their experiences and future needs to deal with COVID-19. (FLDOE, 2019).

These are but a few of the numerous examples of state and local education leaders using what they learn from families to enact meaningful reform to address inequities in the education system highlighted by the pandemic. Leaders can use authentic family engagement to transform the insights gained from surveys and increased family engagement efforts into specific school reform (Montemayor 2019). When schools and families work together, they are powerful forces for policy reform.

Recent successful efforts to remove police from schools in Minneapolis, Portland, Denver and several other locales exemplify the ability to reform educational institutions when students and communities are meaningfully engaged by education leaders.

IDRA’s Education CAFE (Community Action Forums for Excellence) network supports students and families with the knowledge and tools necessary to help schools address inequities in education through authentic engagement with the families they serve. Given the importance of family engagement to the crucial decisions facing education leaders, they will need to increasingly rely on family leaders to ensure all students have equitable access to education in the fall and beyond.


Alabama State Department of Education (ASDOE). Cares Act Frequently Asked Questions. Montgomery, Ala.

Florida Department of Education. (no date). Important – COVID-19 FL Education Impact Survey, survey questions. Tallahassee, Fla.

IDRA. (May 14, 2020). IDRA, Partners Provide South Texas Families Tech Support for Distance Learning During COVID-19 Crisis for Virtual Classroom, media release. San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association.

Learning Heroes. (May 20, 2020). Parents 2020: COVID-19 Closures a Redefining Moment for Students, Parents & Schools, webinar slidedeck.

Montemayor, A.M. (August 2019). Family Engagement for School Reform, literature review. San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association.

Montemayor, A.M. (September 2007). IDRA’s Family Leadership Principles, IDRA Newsletter.

Virginia Department of Education. (June 17, 2020). State Superintendent Announces $23.9 Million in CARES Act Funding to Support Students and Teachers During Reopening Process, media release.

Terrence Wilson, J.D., is IDRA’s regional policy and community engagement director. Comments and questions may be directed to him via email at terrence.wilson@idra.org.

[©2020, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the August 2020 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]