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Reaching, Teaching, and Empowering Families During the COVID-19 Pandemic

June 2020

The quick shift to home-based schooling during the pandemic has refocused attention on the importance of sharing responsibility for children’s learning. Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) West’s partners in schools and districts are asking for good examples of how to strengthen home-school relationships to help them make this shift in the current context. Research confirms what families and teachers know through experience—that positive relationships between home and school are key to student success.

REL West’s BethAnn Berliner spoke with two experts in home-school-community partnerships, Gloria Corral and Patty Chavez. Corral is CEO and President, and Chavez is Director of Policy, at the California-based Parent Institute for Quality Education (PIQE), a statewide family engagement and empowerment organization serving about 20,000 families a year. Here’s what they had to say.

“Family engagement is building parents’ knowledge and skills in ways that honor their strengths and are personalized and continuous.” 

BethAnn: Schooling has changed with the pandemic. So has family engagement. What does it look like for you in this unprecedented moment?

Gloria: Out of urgency to help families survive a crisis, we’ve pivoted to become first responders of a sort. Oftentimes, we’re the only ones reaching out with “How are you?” “What does your family need?” and “We’re here to help.” Right now our work falls into two big buckets. First is taking care of essential family needs. It’s building bridges so families have information about school policies and COVID-19, and have resources for food, housing, and immigration issues. Second is teaching families how to use technology. In under three weeks, we moved thousands of families online. Based on focus groups with parents to better understand their needs, we developed a protocol for helping the families we work with get connected, download virtual meeting apps, and develop tech skills. Using peer-to-peer support and communicating in various languages, we also check in with them to make sure they’re successfully managing in their new online worlds.

BethAnn: Many families are struggling with home-based schooling. What are parents telling you they need in order to help their children right now?

Patty: Knowledge is power, right? They’re asking for clarity in their native languages about school schedules and expectations, in-class lessons and homework assignments, and how to meet with teachers. They need to know what’s happening so they can use their voice to support and advocate for their children’s educational needs and rights while they’re at home. They have questions about how to use all the different online learning platforms, including loaner Chromebooks.

BethAnn: What advice do you have for strengthening family engagement practices, both now and for when schools reopen?

Patty: To strengthen practices, the idea of family engagement needs to be reframed. It isn’t one-sided conversations with parents but about the relationship between families and teachers.

Gloria: Building on that, there are three things that come to mind. First, be sure family engagement practices value the richness of families’ perspectives, and build on their strengths and lived experiences. Second, fund linguistically and culturally appropriate materials for parents and ways of communicating with parents. Hire parent liaisons instead of making robocalls, for example. And third, lift up and value parent participation in its various forms. It’s equally important to ask your child about their school day and provide a quiet spot and time for homework as it is to attend a PTA meeting, but schools tend to place higher value on PTA attendance.

Patty: Our “secret sauce” to supporting family engagement is building parents’ knowledge and skills in ways that honor their strengths and are personalized and continuous.

Gloria: It’s also without judgment and in a language that they understand, recognizing that families are doing their best under extraordinary circumstances.

BethAnn: What leaves you feeling hopeful about family-school partnerships?

Patty: The impact of COVID-19 has created a new opportunity for family engagement, a new level of interactivity between families and teachers. Both have had to develop knowledge and skills and more familiarity with each other to educate kids together. Maybe this will lead to an enhanced partnership.

BethAnn: Any final thoughts?

Gloria: Right now we’re in crisis-response mode, focusing on conditions in front of us. But family engagement work is really ongoing and additive. It’s about empowering parents to support their own children’s school success. But it’s also more far-reaching, helping them to achieve economic and social equity through education.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

For more on parent engagement during the pandemic, view the REL West webinar archive “Engaging Parents and Students from Diverse Populations in the Context of Distance Learning.”