Opinion

How to Host a Virtual Back-to-School Night, and Other Timely Advice for Principals

—Getty and Vanessa Solis/Education Week

Parents who don't want to socially distance, new teachers who need support, and more

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The job of a school leader can be an isolating one—now more so than ever. In this recurring Education Week advice column, two experienced former principals—Tamara McWilliams and Sharif El-Mekki—take turns sharing their decades of expertise with their colleagues.

Have a question? Send it in to [email protected] and check back to see if it appears in an upcoming column.


We're coming back with a hybrid model in September. I'm considering asking families that decide to send their children back for face-to-face instruction to sign a promise agreeing to abide by our school's safety measures of wearing a face mask and social distancing. But how do I win over parents who see this as a political issue rather than a public-health one? And how do I deal with teachers who aren't following it themselves?

—Courtesy of Sharif El-Mekki

Sharif El-Mekki: This is a tough one, but there are some common threads with general leadership of a principal during pre-COVID-19 times. A school leader must always continue to convey a compelling vision for the community. This vision should always prioritize the safety and well-being of the children and staff, a vision that articulates the bar that everyone is expected to reach.

During this pandemic, a clear and inspiring vision for your school will play an instrumental role in establishing your school's culture. I would ground the rationale for the expectation of wearing a face mask and practicing social distancing on the guidelines issued by not only the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention but also by your local pediatric hospitals.

Consistently communicate that expert medical guidance encourages that we follow these practices to support the health and well-being of students, families, and staff—so that's what we're going to do.

Families who do not support these guidelines should not be permitted to attend the physical building. You can instead present them with a fully viable, virtual model option. For staff who do not want to follow this, they can be assigned to staff the instructional model for the fully virtual option. Now more than ever, we need to practice consistency, cooperation, and community. The lives of people in our school community could very well depend on it.

My district has just announced that we're going to be remote until November (at least). I've been giving a lot of thought about how to welcome the several first-year teachers who will be starting this fall—teachers who have not even built a connection to the staff and school community yet. How do I make them feel like part of the team without being there in person. Any advice?

"Parents are essential stakeholders, and they need to feel as though they are in the know and have a level of voice and control over what's happening."

Sharif El-Mekki: I am glad you are thinking so thoughtfully about building community within your school. When I became a teacher, I was very young and was joining a veteran and stable staff. The way they embraced me helped me flourish. Their support and collective investment in me and the one other new teacher that year was crucial.

Our principal and leadership team recognized that team dynamics can change whenever a new person joins a team. Many new teachers (and veterans alike) feel isolated from their colleagues even during a "normal" school year.

We will need to be hypervigilant about building community while teaching in virtual settings. Some thoughts that come to mind:

Design many opportunities for interactive learning and engagement in the virtual staff trainings, including icebreakers, group activities, and breakout-room discussions. Building in opportunities for folks to collaborate—even over screens—will serve to increase the development of connections. To that point, one of the norms should be to have video on during Zoom meetings so that people can see one another. Allow different people to take the lead individually or in pairs for various activities; you can differentiate your support from behind the scenes as needed.

Ask each member of your team how they prefer to be communicated with, what their comfort levels are with meeting new friends and colleagues, what they are passionate about, what they would like to accomplish personally and professionally. Surveys can provide useful data in helping people to connect.

About This Series

Welcome to the new principal-advice column, "The Principal Is In." The job of a school leader can be an isolating one. In a new, recurring Education Week advice column, two experienced former principals—Sharif El-Mekki and Tamara McWilliams—will share their decades of expertise with their colleagues.

Have a question? Send it in to the [email protected], and check back to see if it appears in an upcoming column.

Read the full series here.

Develop a mentor system where new folks can receive the support from an existing staff member, even if it's just for the initial two to four weeks of school.

Build in frequent opportunities to check in with new folks and to get a pulse on how they're doing. Don't do drive-by check- ins. Schedule time and be deliberate. Track in your calendar and ensure that you have a consistent rotation and that team leads do as well. In a regular school situation, we, as leaders, would host chat and chews for new staff members early in the morning and pop into new teachers' classrooms. Finding ways to replicate this in a virtual environment could serve to provide the same level of connectedness and support.

Our campus will not be allowing parents or guardians in the buildings until further notice. I'd like to hear your thoughts on how I can plan a Back to School Night virtually under these conditions? It feels more important than ever to build relationships with parents as instructional partners, and, of course, there's a lot of technology and scheduling logistics to cover. What I don't want is for families to just feel like passive participants watching through a screen.

Sharif El-Mekki: I think I would probably offer the same type of advice for this question as I would for the previous question. Opportunities for engagement with families should be frequent, layered, and intentional. Parents are essential stakeholders, and they need to feel as though they are in the know and have a level of voice and control over what's happening.

More for principals

You should blend synchronous and asynchronous back-to-school meetings to accommodate families' schedules. For meetings that are synchronous, they should be recorded and made available for folks who can't attend.

More broadly, communication with families should be informative and ongoing. Some families may not have the capacity or desire to attend several trainings; other families may want to know about every single aspect of the revised instructional model. A scaffolded, layered parent-engagement plan should be designed to meet the continuum of parents' desire for information.

In addition to the standard overarching Back to School Night session that would offer a big-picture overview of the new school year, more intimate optional sessions can be scheduled that speak to individual components of the revised instructional model. Have recurring "office hour" or town hall sessions available where families can get answers to their questions. Develop a point-of-contact system with a staff member who also can own regular check-ins with an assigned group of families.

Have a designated way for families to share their thoughts, concerns, and questions—like an email link or virtual discussion board—that is staffed by folks who can provide swift and informative responses. Consider redefining the role of the PTA to focus specifically on serving as the liaison between the school and families as an additional outlet and source of communication.

Lastly, too often, these parental-engagement activities ignore a crucial lever. Any time you have the opportunity to engage parents, ensure that the school staff is doing the majority of the listening. These family meetings are the best opportunities to hear from parents: Do they prefer to be communicated with through texts, emails, or phone calls? Are there times that are better than others? What are their and their children's goals and aspirations? How will they hold us accountable in meeting them? What do they want us to know about their child? What are the things that their family does outside of school that we can learn from?

Using the time with parents to ensure two-way communication is vital to setting the conditions for a true partnership, one where families feel heard and valued as partners and experts about their children.

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