This post first appeared on the REL West blog and is posted here with permission.

Finding ways to reach and connect with historically underserved or marginalized populations, including Black, Latinx, and economically disadvantaged students and families, as well as those with language backgrounds other than English, is important for educators at any and all times. Disparities for these students have become even more apparent during the COVID-19 pandemic, and recent national focus on social justice has intensified the calls for addressing them.

REL West recently hosted a webinar sharing lessons from research and practice to help educators engage with students and families from these populations during this especially challenging time. Education researchers and technical assistance providers Barbara Jones and Margit Birge of WestEd were joined by school district leaders D’Lisa Crain from Nevada’s Washoe County School District (WCSD) and Sara Stone and Claudia Medina from California’s Alameda Unified School District (AUSD). In a conversation convened by Jason Snipes, REL West’s Director of Alliance Research, the presenters shared strategies for effective student and family engagement with a focus on how they apply in in a distance learning context. This blog summarizes key takeaways from the webinar.

First, consider students’ and families’ basic needs

Student and family well-being is a key facilitator for student learning at any time, and in the current pandemic it may be especially impacted. To the extent that districts and schools can help address some of students’ and families’ basic needs, they should communicate caring and concern, validate the unique and difficult circumstances families currently face, and forge connections between home and school.

With this in mind, and knowing that their African American, Latinx, Native American, and immigrant populations would be hardest hit by the pandemic, both AUSD and WCSD intentionally set out to meet the needs of these communities. They connected with family networks and community partners — ranging from local PTAs to food banks to tribal leaders — to help them check on students’ and families’ well-being, communicate important information, and help meet basic needs like food and transportation.

Focus on communicating and building relationships with students and families

The webinar presenters discussed the application of the U.S Department of Education’s Dual-Capacity-Building Framework for Family-School Partnerships. A 2013 report on the framework notes that “no meaningful family engagement can be established until relationships of trust and respect are established between home and school.” This is especially true for students and families who feel that educators don’t understand or don’t value the importance of their life experiences or their home language.

The AUSD and WCSD presenters shared how they emphasized frequent communication with families in both English and other home languages. AUSD, for example, provides all information in six languages. In addition to sharing information by email, it uses varied platforms including WhatsApp, Facebook, and Snapchat to communicate with students and families. In WCSD, school and district leaders found that when teachers had established strong relationships with families before school buildings closed, those families and their students were more willing to take calls and work in partnership from home. Also, working with tribal leaders helped WCSD stay connected with some students and families on the far outreaches of the district.

Presenters also reflected on the importance of educators taking an asset-based approach, in which students’ families and communities are valued as “funds of knowledge.” In adapting to distance learning, AUSD and WSCD regularly sought input from families. For example, AUSD created multilingual surveys to learn how families and students felt about the amount of contact and the nature of information they received from the district so that staff could adjust supports and provide appropriate resources.

Implement practical strategies for distance learning

AUSD and WCSD were both able to quickly but thoughtfully pivot to distance learning when shelter-in-place orders closed school buildings in March 2020. Some of their efforts reflected guidance that Barbara Jones shared based on her own work: establish a learning culture that includes families so everyone knows the norms and expectations for participation and learning; focus on learning over compliance; and give students tools to assess their own learning so they develop a sense of personal agency and group responsibility.

Both districts began distance learning with paper packets available at school sites or delivered by bus to centrally accessible locations, such as community centers. They then took some time to establish priorities and curriculum for online learning. AUSD took a trauma-informed approach, creating an online learning environment focused on student well-being, maintaining caring relationships and a sense of hope, reinforcing learning related to key standards, and providing continuous feedback to support understanding. WCSD similarly prioritized family wellness and social and emotional learning through daily personal contact for every child and family. With the help of partners, both districts provided devices and Wi-Fi access wherever possible, relying on paper packets as a backup.

“COVID really brought the inequities in our community to the forefront and made them far more visible than they were before.” – D’Lisa Crain, Washoe County School District

Both districts created video tutorials to guide students’ online experience and model how families could support online learning. They connected families to each other via social networking channels and asked non-teaching staff (for example, food service workers and bus drivers), community partners, and other social service and mental health partners to check in on students and families and communicate or provide needed supports.

Learn from the past and plan for more effective distance learning ahead

District presenters agreed that many challenges remain. WCSD, for example, still has 5,000 students without Wi-Fi access and 16,000 without a laptop. Virtual classrooms using a video platform like Zoom allow educators to see into the homes of families who live differently than they do; presenters noted that some teachers’ judgements about these differences highlighted a need for conversations and training about implicit bias. Some staff also need professional learning on how to provide high-quality, standards-based instruction in a digital format with appropriate supports to meet the needs of all learners. The presenters also agreed there is much to be learned about how to maintain relationships with families and address the trauma that students, families, and staff are experiencing during the pandemic.

The presenters encouraged other educators to consider opportunities the pandemic may present for systemwide improvement as they prepare for the 2020/21 school year. Key takeaways that the district presenters expect to be using as they move forward include:

  • Being deliberate and intentional even though doing so might be slower
  • Focusing first on basic needs and supporting family well-being
  • Engaging families in decision-making and seeking their input
  • Maintaining, building, and leveraging relationships with families, and
  • Engaging community partners in the distance learning effort

Watch the video recording from this webinar and download slides and other resources.