Schools can stay virtually connected to their families. Here’s how.

May 18, 2020 | Blog

May 14, 2020

NewSchools Venture Fund | By Gabi Netter

Schools can stay virtually connected to their families. Here’s how.

It’s a critical time for schools to connect with their students’ families. Leaders and teachers are looking to support families with their economic, physical, and emotional needs in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. Families need help with at-home learning. Schools in choice-based systems need to recruit students to fill their physical or virtual halls this fall.

But reaching families has also never been trickier. An EdWeek survey shows that 23% of public school students are absent during coronavirus closures, with even higher rates in schools serving higher percentages of low-income students. In April, Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent Austin Beutner estimated that one-third of students do not regularly participate in online learning. In these cases, school-family contact could be the difference between students staying on track or losing months of learning.

We heard from the schools in our portfolio that partnerships between schools and families can play a crucial role in closing these gaps, and we wanted to provide them with rapid support on how to strengthen those partnerships without the ability to connect in person. Given the nature of this crisis, we knew we had to find experts that had led through other unique situations. So, we talked to school and district leaders who persisted through Hurricanes Harvey and Ike, who have navigated other public health crises, and who work in remote environments full-time. We also talked to leaders from the schools we work with who are tackling COVID-19 challenges in real-time.

These leaders shared good news: family engagement during this crisis is still possible. To engage families virtually, they told us, meet them where they are. Be flexible and try multiple approaches. Below are the four strategies they shared to make this happen.

1. Ally with mission-aligned organizations

Most schools are part of a constellation of nonprofit organizations and government agencies that share a common goal of providing social services to community members. The relationships that school leaders and teachers have forged with organizations that keep communities fed, sheltered, healthy, and learning can all lead to mutually beneficial partnerships to leverage right now. Nonprofits that focus on youth and families are generally eager to have a school provide referrals. And partners can help schools get in touch and stay connected to current families and help reach new families that might be interested in enrollment. Lumen High School, for instance, a school serving teen parents in Spokane, Washington, has partnered with the Women, Infants & Children (WIC) program, Nurse-Family Partnership, and local community centers. These organizations are sharing information about Lumen on virtual bulletin boards, and in e-newsletters and live conversations with prospective students.

2. Communicate often and through multiple channels

Even before the pandemic, school leaders knew that no single communication approach worked for every family. Given the tremendous change in how people communicate while sheltering in place, school leaders must examine their current communication channels to see where there are strengths and gaps and try some new approaches. Below are a few engaging ideas we’ve seen organization leaders use:

  • Instead of an email, record quick, authentic videos sharing information. Seeing a familiar face and hearing a familiar voice is comforting.
  • Host live streams on Facebook that families can engage in live or watch recordings of later.
  • Stay connected to parent needs by sending out surveys and following up on responses. Rocketship Public Schools administers a wellness survey via text message daily and calls any families who indicate that they can use support.
  • Distribute car magnets and lawn signs to enrolled families to raise the visibility of the school.
  • Send postcards to potential future students with catchy information about the school. Canva is an easy-to-use platform to make communications visually appealing.
  • Find Facebook groups or other social media sites where families in the community congregate and share information about the school.
  • Host virtual events like school tours, parent groups, or student panels so potential future students can get a sense of school culture and community.

Of course, engaging in any one of these strategies requires significant staff time and, in some cases, technical expertise. It’s okay to start small; schools should consider expanding their current approach with one or two added strategies that will most meet their families’ needs. Metrics like response rates to surveys, email open rates, and “likes” on social media can also signal which channels are worth investing in further.

3. Strengthen social media presence

With people spending more time on sites like Facebook, now’s the time for schools to take stock of their existing social media channels — or try new ones — and beef them up, with more frequent, interactive, and creative content. To share information and engage in conversations with families, schools can host live streams, pose engaging discussion questions, or share multimedia content on platforms like Instagram, Whatsapp, and Facebook. Paid advertisements on these platforms, as well as search engine optimization on Google, can also help elevate the profiles of schools that need to recruit new students.

Leaders and teachers are also using social media to support social connections across families. Future Public School in Garden City, Idaho, for example, has seen a lot of activity in the Facebook groups that they set up for families in each of their grade levels. And some schools are using social media sites like Tik Tok simply to spark joy, like this video of teachers sending encouraging messages to students at Aspira Academy in Newark, Delaware.

4. Establish parent ambassadors

Many parents already have strong, trusting relationships. For some families, messages coming from other parents may resonate more than messages coming from school-based staff, especially if they share a home language. Parent ambassadors can, therefore, play a powerful role in engaging and supporting other families.

Effective parent ambassador programs share some common elements:

  • A sense of partnership — Ambassador programs should be built in collaboration with parent leaders in the school community.
  • Thoughtful recruitment — Schools should be mindful of all that parents are juggling and ensure parents know that their participation is entirely voluntary.
  • Clear purpose and responsibilities — Ambassadors should have a clear goal, defined responsibilities, and well-developed systems for sharing what they learn.
  • Ongoing support — Leaders should provide ambassadors with conversation guides and opportunities to practice their facilitation and reflect on their effectiveness.
  • Recognition — Whether working with volunteers or paying ambassadors, schools should think through how to acknowledge and celebrate ambassadors’ contributions to the community.

Different combinations of these strategies will work for different families and different communities. Implementing them all may be challenging, especially for single site or new schools. As leaders and teachers try out these strategies, they should solicit feedback directly from families. Above all, school leaders told us, approaches to family engagement should be responsive to families’ needs.