The COVID-19 pandemic has led to many issues at the intersection of teaching, learning and family engagement with schools. Whichever model school districts adopt for teaching this year, educators will have to ensure that they create meaningful collaborations with families and engage in consistent, personal communication.
Families and students need school districts to use culturally responsive family engagement practices and foster strong relationships with families as this strange school year evolves. Following are strategies for educators in the age of COVID-19.
Challenge negative assumptions about families and stop family engagement activities that are based on those assumptions. (They didn’t work anyway.)
Few people question the value of parents being involved in schools, but many educators labor with traditional strategies that have little meaning or success.
In a recent IDRA webinar, Lourdes Flores, executive director of ARISE in South Texas, described the struggle families in colonias face daily with long work hours, lack of internet access, and health concerns: “It’s not easy for families in colonias, and parents can be interpreted as not being involved enough or as not caring.” But they are still working to be able to “ensure children succeed and are able to move onto college and achieve success.” (IDRAa, 2020)
With all its complications, this school year provides an opportunity for teachers and school staff to build stronger relationships with families. It will be even more vital than before that educators communicate authentically with families, particularly with underserved families of students of color, English learners and students from families with limited economic means.
At its most basic level, when school leaders announce major decisions, they should include their rationale and how family input contributed to the decisions. Schools can set up regular opportunities for listening and dialogue with families – in their language(s). And successful teachers seek to understand what their students’ families are experiencing.
With all its complications, this school year provides an opportunity for teachers and school staff to build stronger relationships with families.
Set up supports for student mental health and well-being
Teaching and learning falter when students struggle with mental health and well-being (Bartlett, et al., 2020). Aicha Davis, member of the Texas State Board of Education, stated in an IDRA webinar about reopening schools: “Mental health support will have to be a priority. We don’t know what type of trauma our students have suffered… The idea of students going through this current pandemic demands that schools proactively address students’ mental well-being to serve the whole child” (IDRAb, 2020).
School district officials and educators should focus early efforts for reengaging with families on providing opportunities for families to receive socio-emotional support. Students must have clear access to trained counselors as well as resources made available through school partnerships with community organizations.
Teachers may need added support and skill-building this year to actively look for opportunities to provide positive re-enforcement to students, while monitoring the healthy pressure of course rigor without piling on unnecessary stressors, such as technology complications and unclear timelines.
Co-construct this school year’s plans for teaching and learning with families and community stakeholders
Approximately 51% of students in the United States are from racially and linguistically diverse backgrounds (NCES, 2018). Because COVID-19 disproportionately affects communities of color, it is critical that districts and educators employ equitable and culturally sustaining family engagement strategies that include various means of communication in connecting with families in their homes (Seale, 2020). Co-construction requires equitable collaboration.
School leaders must do more than disseminate information. Authentic engagement can best occur in an environment that embraces IDRA’s six principles of family leadership (Montemayor 2007):
- Families can be their children’s strongest advocates.
- Families of different races, ethnicity, language and class are equally valuable.
- Families care about their children’s education and are to be treated with respect and dignity and valued.
- Within families, many individuals play a role in children’s education.
- Family leadership is most powerful at improving education for all children when collective efforts create solutions for the common good.
- Families, schools and communities, when drawn together, become a strong, sustainable voice to protect the rights of all students.
IDRA helps schools integrate these principles into day-to-day operations reflected in policies and practices that benefit families and students in partnership with school leadership.
Use multimodal and consistent communication methods that reach all families
About 80% of parents surveyed recently by Learning Heroes say that texting and phone calls are most effective forms of communication for them (2020). Yet many teachers and schools rely on websites and email to communicate. Families appreciate phone communication when it is two-way and understanding of the stresses of the current crisis. When educators listen to parents describe their home situation, how their children are responding to distance learning approaches and what helps their children learn, it has powerful positive effects on the parent-teacher relationship and on the learning progress of the children.
School districts must use multiple methods to establish stronger connections with the home. For example, educators can periodically hold selective, properly distanced, front-door conversations, which give powerful signals about the school’s interest in the children’s education.
Community resources also can support school-family connections. For example, IDRA launched a partnership with two community-based organizations – CSLAP (the College Scholarship Leadership Access Program) and ARISE (A Resource in Serving Equality) – in the Texas Rio Grande Valley that helped Spanish-speaking families navigate virtual classrooms when schools closed due to COVID-19 in the spring. The young adults and teenagers serve as technology mentors through telephone support or online communication while earning community service hours. (IDRA, 2020)
Provide systems for family input
Phone, through voice and text communication, along with email communication can provide means of hearing families’ goals for their children’s education and challenges they face at any point in time. For example, if families come to school to pick up print assignments and materials, staff can conduct brief interviews as they distribute materials.
Throughout the year, school leaders can conduct surveys and two-way conversations with parents and caretakers about parents’ sense of efficacy for helping children and what type of instruction families consider works best for their children. The information educators receive from families can alert them to trouble spots on the horizon or strategies that are not working. And families and students can bring new and powerful ideas to the conversation.
This pandemic requires special efforts from teachers and school administrators. New or rarely used means of communication become central. The beneficial results of authentic communication re-builds a learning community that now involves families in new ways.
We all must come together to ensure that learning continues. Schools need clearer and empathetic connections with families. As schools increase authentic communication with families, we increase the chances that students will be happy and learning.
Bartlett, J.D., Griffin, J., & Thomson, D. (2020). Resources for Supporting Children’s Emotional Well-Being During the COVID-19 Pandemic, Child Trends.
IDRA. (July 15, 2020). Partnering with Families to Reopen and Reimagine Schools, School Reopening Webinar Series. Intercultural Development Research Association.
IDRA. (June 23, 2020). Nurturing Students’ Hearts and Minds, School Reopening Webinar Series. Intercultural Development Research Association.
Learning Heroes. (2020). Parents 2020: COVID-19 closures – A Redefining Moment for Students, Parents and Schools. Arlington, Va.
National Center for Education Statistics. (2020). “Racial/Ethnic Enrollment in Public Schools,” The Condition of Education 2020. Washington, D.C.
Karmen Rouland, Ph.D., is associate director of the Center for Education Equity, Mid-Atlantic Equity Consortium. Aurelio M. Montemayor, M.Ed., is IDRA’s family engagement coordinator and directs IDRA’s Education CAFE work. Comments and questions may be directed to him via email at firstname.lastname@example.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.]