Schools discovered this spring that their efforts to offer remote learning options were only as successful as their ability to reach students from a distance. Particularly during the early stages of extended school shutdowns, some schools reported they hadn’t been able to contact as many as a quarter of their students, according to EdWeek Research Center survey data.
Of course, families are going to be more difficult to reach during a pandemic than under normal conditions. But one of the culprits for missed connections between schools and families lies with record-keeping: If schools don’t have up to date contact information on file, they can’t be sure that their dispatches are reaching the entire student population.
Many schools ask parents to update contact information like email addresses and phone numbers at the beginning of each school year. Some are now planning to add new procedures, such as requesting contact information updates throughout the year or offering additional reminders and tutorials for parents who can update their information virtually. Others have developed creative workarounds for reaching students during the pandemic, from sending postcards to making connections through students’ friends.
“Generally, when you hear from the school, you cringe and go, ‘What did my kid do?’” said Cathy Keegan, superintendent of Milton Area Schools in Pennsylvania. “The culture has shifted into one of caring and concern.”
Here’s how several K-12 districts have changed their approach to keeping up-to-date contact information on file.
Harnessing Tech to Stay in Touch
Prospect Mountain High School in Alton, N.H., uses a technology tool that includes gradebooks as well as information files for all families. “All student records are in the same system that our teachers are using to record all our grades and for us to record attendance,” said Tim Broadrick, the school’s superintendent.
The small school benefited from being in a close-knit community and having strong relationships with students. A team of school staff members strategized which teachers might be most likely to reach students who had already been contacted but hadn’t yet completed schoolwork. Within three weeks of the shutdown, Broadrick’s team omitted the “missing students” line item from its weekly agenda.
“The communication that’s happened here hasn’t been big, community-wide announcements because we had kind of done it so proactively,” he said.
The Milton Area Schools in Pennsylvania managed to get in touch with the vast majority of its families, thanks to a potent combination of mass emails and texts, and individualized reminders on platforms like ClassDojo.
But technology doesn’t supplant the need for families to be actively engaged.
School secretaries across the rural district are currently in the process of reaching out to each family individually to make sure their information is up to date. “It’s a brand new information check,” said district superintendent Cathy Keegan. “In the past, it was looser, and we really left it up to the families to be responsible. Now, we’re saying okay, we’ll go in and be responsible and make sure that what we have provided by families is accurate.”
Already, the search has turned up outdated information, Keegan said. In some cases, that might be because families who have already been communicating regularly with teachers on other platforms might not have thought to also check their contact information file.
Reaching families who weren’t getting in touch with schools required some creative thinking.
The Red Lion school district in York County, Pa. is the state’s largest in terms of square mileage, and encompasses “extraordinarily rural” communities, said Kate DiOrio, the district’s director of pupil services. With a significant population of students who are homeless and thus transient even during the pandemic, contact information on file quickly becomes out of date.
“As the economy collapsed around COVID, our families are moving. Many of the families, that’s the last thing on their mind, ‘let me tell the school where I’m moving,’” she said. “In traditional circumstances, when our families have to arrange busing, they are in great communication. That’s not a need anymore when you’re stuck at home.”
To address those gaps, DiOrio opted for an analog solution. She bought 2,000 postcards and distributed them to school nurses, teachers, guidance counselors, administrators, and anyone else who wanted to play a role in making a tangible connection with students.
Then, this week she went to the senior high school and picked up postcards that had been returned to the school. She’s now created a spreadsheet that lists all the students whose addresses on file are out of date.
Meanwhile, for students who have been contacted but haven’t responded, DiOrio said school staffers have attempted a “whisper down the lane” approach. During meal distribution or elsewhere in the community, teachers who see students will ask them to make sure their friends get in touch with the school if they haven’t already.
“I think people want to know that others are genuinely invested in them, and they care,” DiOrio said.
Planning for the 2020-21 School Year
On a couple occasions, DiOrio from the Red Lion district has herself updated contact information, when she’s gotten word that a student’s family member has died, for instance. Parents have the ability to update contact information on the school’s student information system, but many might not realize or remember that, she said.
“We do send reminders out at the beginning of the year, but I don’t think it would hurt to periodically do it throughout the year,” DiOrio said.
At Taos Academy Charter School in rural northern New Mexico, academic advisers often have more up-to-date insight into a family’s situation than teachers or school administrators. The contact information was “siloed with one person,” which slowed down the process of connecting with out-of-touch families, said Elizabeth LeBlanc, the school’s curriculum and data coordinator.
Going forward, the school will provide more training to families on how to update their information, and establish more concrete protocols for keeping track of that information once someone in the school has it. “When a parent comes in and hands you a sticky note with their new cellphone number, how do I make sure the right people get that?” LeBlanc said.
The contact info gap can also be particularly acute for large school districts with a high number of students from low-income families. During the early days of the pandemic, officials from the Cleveland school district in Ohio made initial check-in calls to families and asked them to provide two phone numbers where they could be reached if they stopped using their current number. During a subsequent round of calls, district officials also asked families for email addresses and checked whether they would have internet access.
“Every touch into the first touch went deeper into understanding how can we bridge the gap created by the pandemic,” said Lorri Hobson, the district’s director of attendance.
The district still has yet to contact 3,000, or about 5 percent, of its families, Hobson said. The district now plans to cross-reference information with local government agencies that work with children to create a more comprehensive directory.
The stakes are high, particularly this summer when school districts may have slightly more time to take stock of what didn’t work during the spring shutdowns.
“If we don’t have that contact information, and we don’t have a plan for getting it, we are excluding families inadvertently,” LeBlanc said. “It’s maybe not the most exciting thing to talk about, but it’s one of the most critical.”
A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.