Opinion
School Climate & Safety Opinion

When Schools Close, Vulnerable Families Are Left in the Dark

Missing digital contact info for parents is suddenly an urgent problem
By Todd Rogers & Jessica Lasky-Fink — March 25, 2020 4 min read
BRIC ARCHIVE

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.

See Also: Coronavirus and Schools

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.

At the moment, too many parents are falling through the cracks."

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.

Follow the Education Week Opinion section on Twitter.

Sign up to get the latest Education Week Opinion in your email inbox.
A version of this article appeared in the April 01, 2020 edition of Education Week as Let’s Not Leave Vulnerable Families in the Dark

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Equity & Diversity Webinar
Culturally Relevant Pedagogy to Advance Educational Equity
Schools are welcoming students back into buildings for full-time in-person instruction in a few short weeks and now is the perfect time to take a hard look at both our practices and systems to build
Content provided by PowerMyLearning
Classroom Technology Webinar Making Big Technology Decisions: Advice for District Leaders, Principals, and Teachers
Educators at all levels make decisions that can have a huge impact on students. That’s especially true when it comes to the use of technology, which was activated like never before to help students learn
Professional Development Webinar Expand Digital Learning by Expanding Teacher Training
This discussion will examine how things have changed and offer guidance on smart, cost-effective ways to expand digital learning efforts and train teachers to maximize the use of new technologies for learning.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

School Climate & Safety Former NRA President Promotes Gun Rights at Fake Graduation Set Up by Parkland Parents
A former NRA president invited to give a commencement address to a school that doesn’t exist was set up to make a point about gun violence.
Lisa J. Huriash, South Florida Sun-Sentinel
2 min read
David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, speaks during the CPAC meeting in Washington on Thursday, Feb. 10, 2010.
David Keene, the former president of the NRA, promoted gun rights in a speech he thought was a rehearsal for a commencement address to graduating students in Las Vegas. The invitation to give the speech was a set up by Parkland parents whose son was killed in the 2018 massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call via AP
School Climate & Safety Opinion The Police-Free Schools Movement Made Headway. Has It Lost Momentum?
Removing officers from school hallways plays just one small part in taking down the school policing system.
Judith Browne Dianis
4 min read
Image of lights on police cruiser
Getty
School Climate & Safety Spotlight Spotlight on Safe Reopening
In this Spotlight, review how your district can strategically apply its funding, and how to help students safely bounce back, plus more.

School Climate & Safety Video A Year of Activism: Students Reflect on Their Fight for Racial Justice at School
Education Week talks to three students about their year of racial justice activism, what they learned, and where they are headed next.
4 min read
Tay Andwerson, front center, Denver School Board at-large director, leads demonstrators through Civic Center Park on a march to City Park to call for more oversight of the police Sunday, June 7, 2020, in Denver.
Tay Andwerson, front center, Denver School Board at-large director, leads demonstrators through Civic Center Park on a march to City Park to call for more oversight of the police Sunday, June 7, 2020, in Denver.
David Zalubowski/AP