Updated: This story was updated with new data on how many states are reporting COVID-19 cases in schools.
Many school districts over the last month had to quickly pull together COVID-19 policies on quarantines, masks, and other safety practices that weren’t well-defined at the start of the third school year impacted by the pandemic.
Then came the next big challenge: communicating the new policies to parents and families. That has not been a pretty picture in many places.
“If you were in a district where your school started in early August, you were likely to be flying the plane while the district built it,” said Bree Dusseault, the practitioner-in-residence at the Center on Reinventing Public Education. And that’s no doubt caused communication challenges.
But schools are learning some important communication lessons for what is evolving into yet another volatile and uncertain school year.
In a July parent survey administered by the RAND Corporation, only 27 percent of parents said at the time that they already knew in detail which specific COVID-19 safety measures their child’s school would have in place in the fall, with 60 percent wanting to know more.
Even as far back as last spring, many districts were trying to figure out how to communicate more effectively with parents for the upcoming school year. For instance, the National School Public Relations Association saw an uptick at the end of the 2020-21 school year in districts requesting communication audits, said Barbara Hunter, the executive director of the organization.
But at a time when COVID-19 protocols keep changing during the 2021-22 school year and Delta variant cases are on the rise, information gaps and problems persist. Parents, teachers, and school and district leaders interviewed by Education Week recognize how challenging it can be to craft and distribute COVID-19 updates to parents in a timely and efficient manner. At the same time, they also expressed a need for transparency, cultural competency, and opportunities for parents to be heard in ongoing communication to ensure there’s no erosion of trust between schools and their communities.
Keeping in mind the needs of caregivers who do not speak English and those who face other barriers to communication such as lack of access to technology is a key part of that work, experts say.
Here is a look at four key lessons learned about better communication with parents:
1. Principals should communicate COVID-19 updates to teachers early and often
Since March 2020, the COVID-19-related communication approach at the Dallas Independent School District in Texas has been to reach out early and often to allay fears and get ahead of misinformation, said Robyn Harris, the district’s executive director of communication services.
Her office gives templates, tools, and additional guidance to principals working to keep their local communities in the know.
While school principals get information and directives from district leaders, parents also want to know directly from teachers what is going on. That can put teachers in a difficult predicament if they are not hearing from their principals quickly enough, said Claire Halquist, a 7th grade honors math teacher at Billy Earl Dade Middle School in Dallas.
In her case, fortunately, Halquist said her principal quickly and intentionally communicates with teachers on what is coming down from the district so they’re not left feeling out of the loop and unable to inform anxious parents.
“When you have leadership who you trust, who communicates with you effectively, and gives you the information that you need, in a way that you’re able to digest, it’s much easier,” Halquist said.
2. Figure out how parents want to communicate
As principal of East New York Elementary School of Excellence, Janet Huger-Johnson sees part of her job as providing context for parents on how she plans to keep their children safe in school and taking stock of all feedback when implementing plans of action.
To Huger-Johnson, flexibility and parent buy-in in planning are key to making sure students are safe and that their needs are met.
“I keep myself zeroed-in on the children and making sure that in no way and form they’re going to be sacrificed in any format, emotionally, academically, so forth.”
Communication with parents, Huger-Johnson has found, calls for layers. In her case, it has meant interviewing parents to learn that text messages are the fastest way to get updates to them. The school has also hosted town halls where parents have a voice in developing a plan of action.
That’s followed up with giving parents clear protocols for how plans are going to be executed for the school year, such as reminding parents to work out ahead of time a plan for child care during quarantines or school closures due to COVID-19 cases.
3. Use translation services to help multilingual families
At the Austin Independent School District in Texas, accessibility for parents, especially those who speak languages other than English, is a high priority.
The district has a tool called Let’s Talk that allows parents and even teachers to submit questions or comments online or via text to the district and get a response. As of March 2020, staffing for that resource was expanded, and now each school campus has its own direct line people can use.
There’s also a translation and interpretation team that helps with documents going out to families, and a Language Line tool through which teachers and staff can have an interpreter dial into a call with parents to help with real-time translation over the phone, said Leonor Vargas, the administrative supervisor of parent programs for the district.
“When a family or a student is in crisis, they’re going to revert to their first language,” Vargas said. “We know the value of being able to communicate with our families in their first language.”
Cynthia Matos in Merced, Calif., appreciates all the text and email updates she receives from the Weaver Union school district. While she, her husband, and her 8th grade son are vaccinated, she fears in particular for her 2nd grade son who can’t get that protection.
“The more information I have, the better sense I have of how the school is handling the situation and it puts me at ease,” Matos said in Spanish.
She believes meetings where district leaders can explain why they have the COVID-19 protocols they do, what goes into the decisionmaking process, and where parents can then share their own thoughts and questions would be helpful to make sure everyone is on the same page.
“I know it’s not easy for anyone, not for me as a parent, not for the staff, not for the teachers. We’re all in the same boat,” she added.
4. Build communication approaches that will maximize transparency
Other tools parents and teachers alike said could be helpful are dashboards tracking positive cases and quarantine counts to help establish as much transparency as possible about the status of COVID-19 in their school communities. But such tools also come with caveats: Some parents have expressed concerns about how accurate dashboards that rely on self-reported data can be and have questions on how often they are updated.
As of Sept. 10, 29 states and the District of Columbia provide public dashboards with information on the number of COVID-19 cases in individual schools or districts.
“Those dashboards work best when they’re paired with really clear communications about the quarantine policies and what happens for student exposure,” Dusseault of CRPE said.
At the end of the day, whatever tools and practices are in place for a given community, transparency in communication is key, said Hunter from the National School Public Relations Association. That includes listening to stakeholders to really understand their fears, their anxieties, and help to bridge that with science and facts.
Parents can recognize when a district is sticking to science and they care about that, said Keri Rodrigues, the president of the National Parents Union, who has found that a lack of trust in a district can lead to a parent unenrolling their child.
“If you want to build trust with parents and families, you have to do trustworthy things,” Rodrigues said. “And we’re not stupid, we see you making moves based on politics and not science, and that undermines the trust that you need us to have.”
Coverage of strategies for advancing the opportunities for students most in need, including those from low-income families and communities, is supported by a grant from the Walton Family Foundation, at www.waltonk12.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the September 22, 2021 edition of Education Week as COVID Protocols Keep Changing. Here’s How Schools Can Keep Parents in the Know