The Urgency of Now

Planning for family engagement in a time of transition

By Brittany Keil Last Updated: August 17, 2021

One of our writers recently handed off a letter of recommendation to a former student. When asked if it was bittersweet to have her senior year take place during a pandemic, her response was surprising. “It was honestly my best year ever,” she said. “For once, it felt like we were all in the same boat.”

This student is somewhat unique in that 2020 was not her first year of virtual learning—she has attended school online for years to accommodate her complex disability. The sense of community that she and her family felt during the pandemic, however, is not unique at all. In fact, in a mid-pandemic survey, family engagement nonprofit Learning Heroes found that out of over 1,500 families, 67% agreed they felt “more connected with [their] child’s day-to-day education than ever before.”

The truth is that schools haven’t always kept up with best practices when it comes to family engagement. As a result, many families have felt left out, especially the 82% of households with adults who work outside the home. But as schools shifted gears early in the pandemic to engage their communities virtually, many families felt fully in the loop for the first time. Parents could attend important meetings online or meet with their child’s teacher without having to miss work to carve out time for a conference.

Going forward, it’s crucial to keep those previously underserved families engaged, even when the days of mass virtual learning come to a close. After all, established research shows that when families are engaged, students are less likely to struggle with academics or attendance. Additionally, schools with high levels of family engagement are more likely to garner community support, including higher voter turnout during bond initiatives.

You’ve heard it said so many times it’s practically a cliche: As the pandemic subsides, we can’t return to a “normal” that didn’t serve all students and families. Your end goal—increasing student success by leveraging family support—should remain the same. But what should this new normal look like when it comes to engaging families? How can we combine the accessibility of virtual engagement with the in-person experience so many of us missed?

In this moment, your district has an opportunity to rethink how you engage families and create systems that better serve your community. Just as you’ve adjusted during the pandemic to meet students’ needs, you can now work to solidify these increased levels of family engagement and build practices that include all families. Specifically, hybrid models of engagement—ones that provide parents and guardians with rich, purposeful opportunities to participate in their child’s learning both in person and online—could result in more effective and engaged school communities. Learning during the height of the pandemic wouldn’t have been possible without the help of students’ families—now, it’s about keeping them involved.

Changing Expectations

Over the past few decades, family engagement has moved far beyond teachers sending notes home in backpacks. After No Child Left Behind required schools to maintain “regular, two-way and meaningful communication,” schools worked quickly to connect what happens in the classroom to families at home. Within a decade, districts would begin harnessing technological tools, such as apps and learning management systems, to provide families with quicker, more up-to-date feedback. Still, until the pandemic, family engagement typically took place through traditional outlets—phone calls, newsletters, and face-to-face meetings.

But these types of outreach have left some guardians, especially those who work outside the home, with fewer opportunities to engage with their child’s school. In 2018, Pew Research Center estimated that only 18% of children had a parent who stayed home during the day—a number likely much lower for children in public school. Unfortunately, engagement practices often fail to reflect this reality. While most working families are highly invested in their child’s learning, many can’t attend in-person events, such as parent-teacher conferences, or volunteer in their child’s class. This can lead administrators and teachers to assume a family is disengaged—when in reality, they simply aren’t available when schools usually want them.

As much as the pandemic has shifted what classroom instruction looks like, it has also shifted the expectations of family engagement. Many families found themselves supporting their children through busy online learning schedules full of back-to-back Zoom meetings. As challenging as this was, they are now accustomed to being deeply involved in their child’s learning, and that isn’t likely to change. They also know their children better as learners—a fact educators shouldn’t overlook as they seek to understand how best to reach their students.

So what can be done to keep families in the loop now that kids are back in school buildings? In order to reach all students, family engagement must be thoughtful, inclusive, and useful to all families. What works for one district may not work for another, but here are three things to keep in mind.

Thoughtfulness

Educators may often feel like they’re beginning each year with a blank slate, but parents and guardians carry over their expectations and experiences—whether positive or negative—from year to year. To make sure families hold onto positive experiences, family engagement must be thoughtful.

Thoughtful family engagement is all about hospitality and customer service. In Beyond the Bake Sale: The Essential Guide to Family-School Partnerships, the authors stress that to fully participate in their child’s learning, many families must
feel a strong sense of invitation. This is even truer for families who participate in a virtual or hybrid model—their lack of familiarity with the face-to-face environment may dampen any connection they have with the school.

Families are much more likely to feel welcome if they receive a regular stream of positive messages from their schools. This means you and your staff need to lead with thoughtfulness as you plan for interactions with your students’ families. For Dr. Maria Ortiz, Assistant Superintendent of Newark Public Schools in New Jersey, this means always recognizing families as human beings first. “The first thing you must always ask a family is if they need a glass of water,” she says. “They need to view your support as authentic before they open up.”

Thoughtfulness also means approaching families with encouragement rather than judgment. “What we don’t need to do is fault them or make them feel wrong because of what they’re not doing,” Ortiz says. “Instead, let’s start with what they are doing and build a connection so that we are starting from an asset mindset and not a deficit mindset.”

It is vital to approach inclusive family engagement with a focus on what is working rather than what’s not. While it’s often tempting to focus on what families aren’t doing to support their children at school, this outlook creates a vicious cycle. Approaching guardians with judgment only makes them less likely to participate in their child’s education—perpetuating the idea that they’re disengaged and fueling even more judgment. In reality, many parents of children with behavioral or academic challenges may be avoiding schools precisely because they feel judged. To build true partnerships, schools should focus on working with families to solve problems rather than holding them accountable for the challenges they face.

Illustration: DNA double-helix, with families highlighted as making up the strands

Inclusivity

Inclusive family engagement ensures that interactions are welcoming to all families, regardless of race, age, ability, socioeconomic status, or anything else. This goes deeper than mere accessibility— just because a family has access to a space doesn’t mean they feel welcomed there. If any families in your district seem disengaged, your team should actively seek out the reasons why.

This kind of honest feedback is hard to get; you’re unlikely to find it through a survey. Instead, you must rely on fostering strong, purposeful relationships with all the communities represented within your schools. These can be built either through connections with families themselves or with the help of organizations that already have established influence in your community. Candid conversations can go far; creating safe spaces to discuss barriers to participation can provide valuable information about how welcome families feel in your schools.

Sometimes the fix may be as simple as adjusting the time of an event—but other times, you’ll need to look deeper into how to make your families feel safe and included. This may involve having heart-to-heart conversations with families or analyzing data about who attends which events and when.

To make sure families feel welcome, work to foster a community of “belonging and delight.” As Dr. Ernest Morrell, Director of the Center for Literacy Education at the University of Notre Dame, stresses, “It’s not a community if it isn’t equally accessible to both parties.” Both educators and families should feel comfortable in your schools. Families are much more likely to feel a sense of belonging in a school that celebrates them and their children. All families love to see their children shine. Once they see that their school loves their kids as much as they do, they’ll want to be part of that celebration.

Usefulness

Finally, family engagement must be useful; it must support student growth. At the height of the pandemic, schools across the country transformed into community centers, often providing meals and other services. While these wraparound supports may change as the pandemic recedes, schools must continue to think creatively about how to meet the needs of their communities. This will require you and your staff to listen closely and be observant. If you notice holes in your support for students and families, find ways to address them. Fostering useful family engagement means facilitating relationships that make things easier and more productive for everyone.

Useful family engagement could also mean listening to families who prefer virtual meetings and events to in-person ones. This is especially true for interactions with required attendance. Some school leaders have reported that IEP meeting participation has increased during the pandemic, simply because virtual participation is more accessible. If this is true for your district, you don’t want to miss the chance for potential engagement by phasing this option out completely.

A scientist holding up a solar panel-like piece of technology, with light shinning from it.

Planning Hybrid Events

Even after the pandemic subsides, most industry experts agree that hybrid events are here to stay. Joanne Dennison of the Boston University School of Hospitality Administration thinks this has been a long time coming. “Hybrid meetings will be the norm as opposed to the exception,” she says.

For schools, hybrid events make sense for several reasons: They’re less expensive, they require less space, and they’re more accessible. Additionally, increased registration for virtual academies nationally suggests that public schools will need to keep working to support virtual learners, even as most students return to the physical classroom.

What does this have to do with family engagement? Consider this: Virtual events are not only more convenient but also more inclusive. Many students have support networks that extend far beyond the traditional nuclear family. While you may not have the capacity to invite a 10-person team of parents, siblings, extended family, friends, and neighbors to a small award ceremony, they can all easily tune in on Zoom. Think of the large family and friend groups that show up to football games—imagine if all school functions were just as welcoming.

Going forward, your family engagement plan should involve some hybrid events: ones that involve both physical and virtual components. But even though you’ve long since mastered in-person events, and the pandemic gave you a crash course in virtual ones, combining the two is a more complicated endeavor.

While it may be tempting to simply record and post your physical events, this approach won’t engage your audience. Some districts, for example, post recorded school board meetings on YouTube only to find that almost no one watches them. This low-effort approach to a hybrid event not only runs the risk of boring your virtual audience, but could also deter families from engaging at all.

Coordinating a hybrid experience that will wow your entire audience is difficult—and undoubtedly takes more resources than simply recording your event. But if you’re working to build a future that engages your entire school community, it’s worth it.

Guidelines From the Private Sector

Luckily, you can turn to the private sector for lessons on planning equitable and engaging hybrid events. First, consider the desired goal of an event and be willing to adjust the format accordingly. For example, if you are planning a hybrid event to help high school seniors fill out the FAFSA, it may not make sense to execute it in the same way for both audiences. Virtual attendees aren’t as able to take cues from other participants as their in-person peers, and they’re also more likely to be distracted as they try to follow along within a group. Since the FAFSA requires people to provide personal information, they may not feel comfortable asking questions in front of others.

To be more engaging all around, you might hold the in-person event in a large group and conduct the virtual portion separately, with families signing up for dedicated online appointments with a counselor. That way, virtual attendees have someone to help them through an admittedly tricky process. What’s important is to make sure that all participants feel valued and comfortable, and that the event accomplishes its goals—even if it means doing things differently than you have before.

According to Cvent, an event planning software company, you should also consider the factors that may motivate someone to choose a virtual event over an in-person one: “They may be more safety-concerned, budget, and/or time-constrained than your in-person segment.” Understanding this motivation will help you tailor your events to meet the needs of both audiences. You should also be aware of how to prevent technological barriers on your end, though you have likely had plenty of experience working through those issues over the past few semesters.

Cvent also recommends having at least one person at your physical event dedicated to ensuring your virtual audience feels included and has a good time. This person can handle technical problems and encourage enthusiasm by engaging directly with your online participants. The more points of contact you can make with all audiences, the more successful any event will be.

Finally, think about which traditional aspects of virtual events could be helpful for all attendees, including those participating in person. For example, after attending a virtual event, participants usually receive a follow-up email highlighting key takeaways. Why not send a similar email to your in-person participants as well? Not only does this give you an opportunity to reiterate important information, but it also fosters a sense of unity between virtual and in-person attendees.

To further build this sense of connectedness, event planning blog vFairs also recommends hosting live Q&A sessions that include questions from both halves of your audience. This keeps your event inclusive while also heightening awareness of the different participation methods available.

Preserving the Experience

Because many school events serve as rites of passage for students and their families, it’s important to make sure virtual participants still feel like they’re getting the “whole experience.” Some events may be hard to replicate in a virtual setting, but a little creativity can go a long way. Let’s say you’re giving out swag to students attending a college fair in person—you’ll want to make sure virtual attendees get their own goodie bags, too.

Some events might seem impossible to pull off virtually—prom, for example. But last spring, California’s Hawthorne High School proved that any event can be made more accessible and inclusive with a few adjustments. When Hawthorne realized they couldn’t have a traditional prom because of safety concerns, they launched into planning a hybrid event that would preserve the magic of the experience while keeping people safe. Their dynamic hybrid prom included drive-through photo stations, an interactive Zoom event, and a DJ who fielded virtual and in-person music requests.

Of course, this isn’t the only way to throw a major hybrid event. Other districts made prom-in-a-box packages for virtual participants that included memorabilia, supplies for at-home photo booths, and, of course, snacks.

While you’ll want to make major milestones such as dances and back-to-school nights feel special, this practice also applies to everyday events where family engagement is highly valuable, such as parent-teacher conferences or IEP meetings. If families understand that you want their input no matter how they participate, they are much more likely to engage.

Making family engagement work as part of a hybrid model means no one gets left out. Although your strategies may look different than before, the future you’re working toward has a chance to be more inclusive and engaging for everyone. From planning hybrid IEP meetings to finding ways for students to attend prom virtually, hybrid events allow leaders to build stronger, more cohesive school communities.

The Urgency of Now

As this school year begins with a renewed focus on social-emotional learning nationwide, it’s never been more necessary to ensure that all students and families feel valued and included. This means blending the lessons you’ve learned during the pandemic into your previous best practices—engaging students’ families in new ways that are accessible and beneficial to everyone.

Recently, family engagement scholar Pam Allyn, reflecting on this moment, quoted the words of Martin Luther King, Jr.: We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. “Now is always,” Allyn added.“It’s not just post-COVID. We have to think of what was there during COVID. It was the grandmother sitting beside her grandson on a Zoom. It is the beauty of that love that we witnessed this year.”

Families have already adjusted how they relate to your schools—they’ve had to. As a leader, you can take advantage of the many opportunities presented by this shift to foster a thriving community that supports every student’s needs. A future brimming with inclusive family-school collaboration is more within your grasp than ever before—why wait?


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