A recent nationwide survey
about reopening schools this fall found that families with limited economic resources and Black or Hispanic families were much less likely than white or wealthy families to believe that educators could keep schools safe. These differences in attitudes may be attributed in part to differences in how educators communicate with families.
Negative interactions with schools clearly diminish the trust that parents and caregivers have in schools. When most of a school’s communication tactics rely on one-way communication and focus on disseminating information, the school misses opportunities to build relationships with students' families.
Activities like sending fliers home with students, creating promotional videos, sending mass e-mails and leading static webinars or presentations – while needed – are not examples of authentic communication between schools and families. These methods do not allow for meaningful feedback from parents and caregivers. Likewise, when communicating information about student progress, it is not enough to merely post such things as grades on a parent portal on the district’s website.
As students are physically and socially disconnected from school campuses via online instruction, caregivers and teachers need authentic dialogue more urgently.
One Southern district, served by the IDRA EAC-South
, discovered a deeper issue when leaders collected data intending to identify digital divide equity issues. They were surprised to learn that white families were twice as likely to have two-way communications with teachers during pandemic school closures than Black and Latino families. Controlling for lack of connectivity, 60% of white families and students had frequent two-way communication with school personnel through phones, emails and conference platforms, while only 30% of Black and Latino families had such communication.
This example reflects a trend across the South and points to equity and authentic engagement issues between schools and families far deeper than the digital divide.
Strategy: Add or Bolster Two-Way Communication Methods
Schools can be proactive in delivering information to parents and caregivers in a manner that enables families to provide real-time feedback about their concerns. For homes with ample connectivity and devices, schools can use email for interactions beyond just sending out news. First, parents and caretakers need to know they are corresponding with a specific person. Second, the educator should be ready to respond quickly and participate in a peer conversation.
Educators must be prepared and supported to engage in dialogue in the dominant language spoken in the home and in a way that is culturally appropriate.
Fundamentally, communication should use tools that families have. The most common is the telephone, whether it be a landline, smart phone or flip-phone. Family members in south Texas told us they appreciated being able to talk with their child’s teacher by phone instead of having to figure out how to use higher-tech tools in the rare occasions they were available in the neighborhood or community center. They also reported that school personnel seemed to avoid talking with them by phone.
Provided families have access to Wi-Fi and devices, other tactics include setting up virtual office hours or town halls with live, real-time, online sessions. Weekly contacts and dialogues keep families informed and reduce the isolation brought about by the COVID-19 separations.
Schools can provide resources and institutional support for parent support specialists and other family liaisons ensure this contact happens. They also can retrain truancy officers to provide this support, too, rather than enforcing unhelpful and ineffective truancy measures.
Communicating with Purpose
No school communication method will build trust if it is not done in the spirit of partnership. Parents and caregivers are the experts on their children and youth. They know that the future of their community depends on the success of education today. Perhaps now more than ever, educators, students and families need to build strong relationships with each other in order to face the challenges of an isolating pandemic and its effects on education.