COVID-19 has made it more obvious that the public school system cannot fulfill its mission without families. This pandemic—along with the many overlapping pandemics our nation now faces, including racial, economic, political, and environmental injustices—has also heightened existing barriers between families and schools.
For the past few years, we at the Family-School Collaboration Design Research Project—the community research partnership facilitated by the University of Utah of which all the authors of this essay are a part—have been working with teachers, administrators, and culturally diverse families in Salt Lake City to design new ways of increasing family voice in schools. When we recognized the increased disconnection between families and educators during COVID-19, we asked them to share experiences, hopes, frustrations, and needs in recorded Zoom videos. In those videos, families and educators taught us how COVID-19 is straining their relationships. This reality challenged us to think creatively about school and family engagement.
The coronavirus pandemic has magnified deep-rooted racial and social injustices and perpetuated educational inequities. With the shift to online teaching, the digital divide has become a chasm, separating those who have access to school learning and those who don’t. Families in our project, like so many other Americans, described struggling to figure out new technology in a new language with only one computer for multiple children and unreliable or nonexistent internet access. Meanwhile, the pandemic has left many families with multiple crises—food and home insecurities, loss of work, illness— which compete for time and resources with school. These crises are disproportionately harming historically marginalized groups, including families of Black, Indigenous, immigrant, and refugee backgrounds like those in our project.
We know from decades of research that genuine, reciprocal, trusting relationships are the foundation on which educators and families can overcome educational obstacles.
And it is clear that educators and families want to be more connected. As Evelia, a parent, said in her Zoom video message to schools: “Include me in my child’s education. [We need] parents, students, and teachers working together to establish routines, communication, and discipline.” Victoria, a teacher explained, “I am looking to my school and my district to come out with a consistent plan that helps support students, families, and educators and allows us to build those meaningful relationships that are going to create good learning opportunities that will support our students through this school year.”
Historically, family involvement has been defined narrowly, judged mainly by the physical presence of families in schools."
Historically, family involvement has been defined narrowly, judged mainly by the physical presence of families in schools—which is impossible during a shutdown. The education profession has rarely asked families how they define “engagement” (or “family”) and consistently devalues many less visible ways that families support education at home and in the community, such as passing along cultural norms and building educational passion through real-world experiences. Overall, engagement has been marred by broken trust, racial bias, and educators’ cultural assumptions about what a “good” family does.
Re-envisioning this dynamic requires centering the families traditionally left out by those cultural assumptions. COVID-19 can be a catalyst for us to jettison old, school-centered ways of doing things that haven’t worked well. Below are some recommendations based on what we learned through our project and through decades working with families and schools.
We are mindful that COVID-19 has brought many uncertainties, including budget cuts that have resulted in the loss of nearly 500,000 public education jobs in April of this year alone. However, we encourage districts to prioritize genuine relationships with all families whenever possible. Here’s what that looks like:
• Support paid time to connect with families. While budget cuts may make paying overtime infeasible, districts should work to carve out paid time for teachers to call, text, Zoom, and (when necessary) meet with families to check in. The most important goal is to keep communication with families open and for educators to understand the realities families are facing.
• Have staff dedicated to leading schoolwide family engagement. Family engagement is everyone’s responsibility, not just an expectation of individual teachers. When possible, hire and support people who can connect across racial, cultural, and linguistic divides, such as bilingual individuals with roots in local communities.
• Construct family leadership and decisionmaking roles. We are not going to figure out COVID-19-era education without the knowledge and expertise of the families most impacted. Learn about the assets your families have and welcome their contributions to this joint effort.
• Look for new spaces to engage families. With schools closed, this is a perfect time to get away from the school building and into community spaces for parent-teacher meetings or even “classroom” instruction, while still addressing the reality of the pandemic. As Rebecca, a teacher, put it, “A classroom can be a play area in an apartment complex, it can be in a parking lot of a library.”
• Invest in family members as coeducators. Many families do not feel ready to take on the added teaching responsibilities they have been given. Umu, a parent, explained, “I think to home school a kid, you have to equip the parents first before coming to the child.” Offer materials, workshops, or one-on-one support to families so they can build confidence in this new role.
• Work with community partners. Rebecca explained that, “I, alone, as a teacher do not have the skills and the strengths to go ahead and diminish all of these barriers” that students face. Addressing the racial and social inequities heightened by the pandemic requires working closely with local community organizations, agencies, businesses, and community leaders—some of whom will be family members in the school.
• Offer professional development. Teachers, staff, and administrators need more training on anti-racism and how to build authentic, equitable relationships with multilingual families of all backgrounds.
These commitments will create the foundation we need for families and educators to confront the new challenges of distance learning in a time of pandemic. It is imperative that we as a nation make education a priority and support the educational success of our children by investing in these essential commitments. When this particular crisis has passed, we cannot return to normal. The inequities magnified by COVID-19 will persist and must be addressed.