When Schools Close, Vulnerable Families Are Left in the Dark
Missing digital contact info for parents is suddenly an urgent problem
While some well-off and well-connected families fret about being inundated with information from their schools during the unfolding coronavirus pandemic, the most vulnerable families are hearing nothing. Last week, the mother of an elementary school student called up EveryDay Labs, an organization that one of us (Todd Rogers) co-founded to partner with school districts on reducing student absenteeism. She asked what homework her daughter needs to do while her school is closed.
She learned from a friend that classes were canceled but that students were still expected to complete homework. That morning, she had walked to her daughter’s school to pick up a homework packet only to find that the school was vacant. The district had alerted those for whom they had contact information that schools were closed. She had not received any of these alerts, so she called the number on the absence report we mailed her a month ago.
This mother is not alone. Many districts do not have digital contact information (email addresses or cellphone numbers) for a significant portion of their most vulnerable families. With more than 120,000 schools (and counting) closed, being in touch with families will only become more urgent. On little notice and hardly any time for planning, schools and districts are scrambling to figure out how to best serve their students and families during this time.
In addition to setting up systems for remote learning, districts are also trying to feed the 30 million students who rely on them for at least one daily meal. More and more districts are setting up distribution sites where families can pick up meals and access other services families rely on schools for.
Yet, in order for families to use these services, they must first learn about them. And many families who need them most are not learning about them because districts lack quality digital contact information for vulnerable families.
The best data on this disturbing gap comes from a study conducted by Georgia State University researchers Tareena Musaddiq, Alexa Prettyman, and Jonathan Smith. Their study involved using email and text to communicate with families of K-12 students who were on track to be absent 8 percent of days or more in Atlanta-region districts. By November—only three months into the school year—they were unable to reach nearly 50 percent of families by either SMS or email.
Normally, sparse coverage of digital contact information is not a huge problem. Schools and districts usually have many ways to contact parents, including face-to-face communication and snail mail. With mass closures, though, districts now must rely on contact information they collected back in August or September.
Districts tend to have mailing addresses for the vast majority of their students (and some landline numbers), but neither is useful for communicating time-sensitive information or educational content. Landlines can be reached via robocalls, but they are typically hung up on within seconds. Even when they are not, communicating through automated messages requires time and attention, and robocalls are nearly impossible for digital content like readings, worksheets, and homework.
In our work at EveryDay Labs, we have found that mailings can typically reach greater than nine out of 10 families, but the unexpected closure of administrative buildings impedes the coordination needed for many districts and teaching teams to send mass mailings right now. Meanwhile, districts lack valid digital contact information for millions of vulnerable students. Even for families that had provided this information at the beginning of the year, many contacts are no longer valid. And this is particularly the case for the most vulnerable families. Those families most in need of information and resources from school districts are those for whom districts are least likely to be in touch.
Many parents—like the mother who called EveryDay Labs last week—are missing out on communication about school closures, distance learning resources, food availability, and other services. Though many vulnerable families lack reliable high-speed internet access, nearly all are contactable—96 percent of American adults own cellphones, according to the Pew Research Center. Yet, at the moment, too many parents are falling through the cracks.
Many districts are aware of this problem but lack the capacity or resources to address it during this crisis. Others do not realize this problem exists because they have not been able to carefully examine their own data. Whatever the reason, a tragically high percentage of vulnerable families is missing critical communications from their schools exactly when they are most needed.
Public officials should immediately launch public communication efforts encouraging families to update their contact information, and districts should make it easy to update this information. Districts could also leverage the high contactability of snail mail to encourage families to update digital contact information. As three weeks of school closures turns into three months, districts and educators will need contact information to support struggling families and to keep students learning.
Unless we act now, the existing inequities of our K-12 schooling will be even further exacerbated over the coming months.
Vol. 39, Issue 28, Page 20Published in Print: April 1, 2020, as Let's Not Leave Vulnerable Families in the Dark