Turning a Moment into a Movement: How the COVID-19 Pandemic is Jump-Starting a New Era in Family Engagement

 //  Feb 8, 2021

Turning a Moment into a Movement: How the COVID-19 Pandemic is Jump-Starting a New Era in Family Engagement

In this piece, Anne T. Henderson, Senior Consultant, National Association for Family, School and Community Engagement, writes about what we can learn from this challenging moment as a way forward for family engagement.

Urgent messages are coming in from families:

“Teachers, please! Let us know you know that we exist!”

“We need more help from school to manage our three kids’ learning at home!”

“Our router doesn’t have enough bandwidth for me, my brother, our tenant, and my two kids to connect at the same time.”

Since last March, I have been talking (via Zoom, of course) with parents, students, teachers, family liaisons, district and state administrators, researchers, family resource center coordinators, and special educators. “During this pandemic,” I ask, “How are you coping? And what are you learning?”

Families are struggling to manage their children’s remote learning at home, master the technology of connecting to a virtual classroom, and get access to learning materials. They know their kids are spending too much time staring at screens. They are worried that their kids are falling behind and not getting enough instructional support. Above all, they crave more connection with their children’s teachers and schools.

Know what? Teachers are in the same boat. Many need help mastering the different remote learning platforms they are trying to use. All are worried that their students may be feeling isolated and depressed and that they are not getting the help they need (especially for students with special needs, students from low-income families, and English language learners). They want to be in closer touch with students and their families.

So what is going on? All over the country, parents, family members, students, teachers, and other school staff are working together to figure this out. Frankly, I am amazed and delighted at all the innovative ways they are collaborating to support their children and students. It’s inspiring! And I believe it’s more than a moment.

Here is what I’ve observed that is fueling a powerful movement in family engagement:

1. Schools are a vital resource and connection point for families, especially now. District family engagement coordinators are helping families facing financial hardship meet their basic needs—food, childcare, housing, digital access. These coordinators are contacting community groups, faith communities, and social service agencies to deliver food, winter coats, internet provider vouchers, and learning materials to families. In a district in Florida, for example, staff dispatched school buses retrofitted as “hotspots” to communities with insufficient internet access, shipped laptops and other devices to families in need, and advocated with the state government for housing assistance.

Staff at family resource centers everywhere are contacting families to find out how they’re doing, and to offer support such as virtual playgroups, “go-bags” with toys and learning games, and childcare for essential workers. School social workers and clinic staff are offering consultations for families, virtually or in-person. Teachers of English language learners are providing translation and emotional support for families struggling to manage in a new country during a pandemic. Family liaisons are checking in with parents to ask “Are you OK?” and offering advice about establishing routines, providing alternatives to screen time, and sharing tips. (My favorite: Advising parents to charge children’s devices at night—and not in the kids’ bedrooms!)

2. Technology is paving the way for easier two-way communication between teachers and families. Both sides are learning how to use the different platforms, share information, and collaborate in supporting children’s learning and development. Families are going on virtual visits to museums, attending workshops, and joining class meetings online. Teachers are making virtual home visits to build relationships and learn from parents the best ways to reach and teach their kids. After all, parents are the experts on their children!

3. Teachers and families are problem-solving together and coming up with innovative ways to stay in touch. Virtual parent-teacher conferences have become more like home visits, and they include the whole family. Teachers say they feel better connected to students’ families, obtain useful information, and can develop real partnerships. Parents feel they have the teacher’s undivided attention. They also no longer worry about other families in line behind them, or about braving traffic to get to the school. Students listen in and offer their ideas about what’s bothering them and what would make learning at home easier. 

4. Parents are coming forwardand being recognizedas leaders. With experience and networks to pull from, they are helping school staff with outreach and community building. Parents are experts on their neighborhoods; they know what others are going through and what help they need. For families who feel overlooked or left out, parent leaders can provide guidance, access to family resource centers, and help speak out for their children. As one parent leader in Connecticut said, “We are the bridge between our communities and the powers that be.” 

The typical picture of family engagement shows a parent, a teacher, and the student. As we now see, it is much more than that. Instead, it looks like a space launch! Just as engineers, mathematicians, mechanics, and ground crews work together to launch a rocket, so too are families, educators, support staff, administrators, and community organizations teaming up to launch children’s success.

What works is a system of connection and support centered on student well-being. Parents can create a better home learning environment when teachers explain what their children are learning and doing in class. Teachers feel more supported and informed when families explain their children’s interests and challenges. Guidance counselors, social workers, special education teachers, and reading specialists provide vital support to both families and teachers. Community organizations that offer childcare, afterschool, and summer enrichment programs, allow parents to work and children to expand their horizons. When school districts offer community education programs, health clinics, recreation, and GED classes, the whole community benefits.

It turns out that good educational practice for the pandemic is good educational practice, period. The lessons we are learning now about innovative ways to build family-school partnerships will guide us to create a new and better normal. Let’s turn this moment into a movement!

Photo (c): Studio Romantic/Shutterstock