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Challenges, wins, surprises: Four learnings from family engagement in COVID-19

Updated: Sep 25, 2022

A mother and her two young children sitting in front of a laptop computer.
A mother and her two children adapt to a more virtual world.

Family engagement is a cornerstone of early childhood education – after all, we know that families hold incredible power to shape children’s early learning and development, and home-school connection is critical for success. Of course, the COVID-19 pandemic threatened all of that: with families largely kept out of school buildings, school staff were forced to adapt family engagement to the virtual world practically overnight, then continue in this virtual limbo with no clear timeline in sight, as the pandemic now enters its second school year.

This summer, ParentCorps’ team of Data and Outreach Coordinators engaged in a period of reflection and conversation, talking extensively to NYC pre-K program staff about the challenges and wins of family engagement in the past year of the pandemic.

Here were key themes from these conversations:

#1: School staff and families in “survival mode”

In this incredibly challenging year, both school staff and families were overwhelmed. In response, school staff rose to action: from organizing food pantries and fundraising events to finding creative, safe ways to engage outdoors to calling families to extend care and support, they devised new ways to build up their school communities. One mental health coordinator noted that despite a challenging year, the school became “close like never before.”

#2: Flexibility was key

For school staff, a year of challenges also meant a year of creative solutions. From leveraging platforms like ClassDojo and Google Classroom to Canva, to social media, to outdoor events, school staff were determined to make family engagement happen. Sometimes this took trying things that had never been tried before – a call instead of a text, a text instead of a call, sending along pictures of the child’s day – but flexibility proved essential to preserving family engagement in a radically new context.

A call instead of a text, a text instead of a call, sending along pictures of the child’s day – flexibility proved essential to preserving family engagement in a radically new context.

#3: Technology presented both a barrier and new source of opportunity

With most family engagement events happening virtually throughout the 2020-21 school year, access to technology became more critical than ever before. In this period, school staff reported multiple barriers in relying on technology to engage families, including lack of reliable Wifi, families not receiving devices in time, and overall feelings of email overload, especially for caregivers still building their comfort with digital communication. Add in the fact that being on a Zoom screen all day is exhausting.

At the same time, remote engagement may have offered valuable flexibility for busy families.

Many of the barriers that previously prevented families from engaging (e.g. work schedules, parking spaces) were lifted with virtual events. A parent coordinator noted that COVID-19 was a “bittersweet” experience because, despite the challenges with online workshops, she could at least “meet [families] where they were at.” School staff noted that many forms of remote engagement – particularly those that worked well for busy families – are now here to stay.

#4: Families crave meaningful connections

Though it was harder to get in contact, school staff reported that when they did reach families, the connections that did happen were deep, meaningful and important. “Most families, once contacted, were thankful and grateful to have a resource and felt a little bit more stable, and comforting,” one parent coordinator noted.

Leila Eldomyati and Aakriti Prasai are ParentCorps Research Coordinators.

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