Communication between home and school is a challenge even when all schools are open and there isn’t a worldwide pandemic to worry about.
When schools moved to remote learning and key worker provision in March, this challenge only intensified. And now, once again, the need to communicate clearly and succinctly is more urgent than ever, as we shift from school learning to remote learning. The late announcement that there would be national restrictions across the country has meant schools are fielding ongoing questions around what constitutes a key worker, and parents are burdened with their own workloads or health worries.
Coronavirus school closures: Keeping in contact with parents
So what is the best way to approach it? We spoke to some school leaders to get their opinions on how to tackle parent communications during school closures.
1. Use regular communications channels
At the Harris Federation, Nick Soar, executive principal at St John's Wood and executive principal at Tottenham for the Harris Academy in North London, says it is important to use all of the available tools at your disposal to have the best chance that messages will reach all of your parents.
“Comms is all about variety,” says Soar. “Letters posted in hard copy; digitally sent via email and posted as a JPG on Twitter and via text."
He also advises making sure that you adapt your messages to suit the format they are being sent on – ie, send shortened versions via text and longer ones via email.
Shannen Doherty, a primary school teacher from London, says she found during the previous school closures that regular phone calls saw off problems before they escalated.
"We did weekly phone calls home," she explains. "Doing this meant we were able to check in with every family and make sure they were coping both mentally and with the extra stress of remote learning. By keeping this regular communication, it meant when some students needed more work or more differentiation, we were able to sort this quickly and get it delivered or arrange collection."
2. But find new ones, too
When a school is open, much of the communication between teachers and parents occurs in snatched bits of time: on the gate at pick-up or in the morning before the bell rings.
So when the school doors closed on Friday 20 March, those opportunities vanished. Emily Thompson, a teacher at East Whitby Academy in North Yorkshire, decided to give the parents of her students the chance to join a special Facebook group in order to continue their communication with the school.
“We’ve had a hugely positive response so far,” says Megan Suggitt, deputy headteacher of East Whitby Academy. “The parents are loving it as it’s private and safe, so they can share videos and pics of their little people, and students are commenting (via parents) on each other’s posts.”
The benefit of using Facebook, Suggit says, is the way everyone can respond to content. “We are able to react as a team,” she says. “TAs and teachers are able to almost instantly respond to pictures and parental posts.”
Most importantly, Suggitt feels it reaches parents in a way that more formal methods don’t. “I think it’s that bit more personal than an email, and actually not all of our parents are confident enough to email back, whereas Facebook is just the norm to them now,” she says.
“It’s keeping the sense of community going. Our school is a family, and this allows us to feel like a family still.”
3. Find the right tone
When people are already feeling fraught and anxious, a letter from the school with an aggressive or reprimanding tone can be damaging to the relationship.
Jon Spears, assistant principal at Tamworth Enterprise College, says now is not the time to send home letters threatening students with sanctions if work isn’t completed, or giving dates for examinations on the content they’re meant to have completed.
“How we communicate to our students at this time is vital; they are already incredibly anxious about the global pandemic and this has been massively exacerbated by the sudden loss of structure and normality by schools closing their gates on Friday,” he says.
“We obviously need to be teaching students remotely and for them to engage with this new way of working, but sending strongly worded letters or emails to students threatening them with severe consequences, such as sitting exams upon return and resetting based upon the work completed during closure, is going to do nothing to support families at this difficult time.”
4. Support and comfort
Instead, he says all communication should have the aim of providing support and comfort. “Communication from the school is an opportunity to let each child know they are still part of the school community, that the familiar comfort of their teachers is still there (albeit on a computer screen) and that engaging with the work and their new virtual school is a vital tool in helping with their own wellbeing and mental health,” he says.
James Banks, a Year 5 primary school teacher in Essex, agrees, and says schools should ensure that everything they communicate with parents is said in an understanding and compassionate tone.
5. Remember, this is not homeschooling
“It is really important to remind parents this is not homeschooling,” adds Banks. “They have not chosen this option, it has come about as a result of an unprecedented emergency situation.”
He says it should be made clear that no parent is expected to take on the role of a teacher. “What we should do is tell parents that work is available to support their child, and to reinforce previous learning. This in no way is meant as a replacement for a full taught curriculum.”
6. Be aware of family challenges
Most importantly, Banks feels that schools need to communicate with one thing in mind: every family has its own unique set of challenges.
“Every family and their situation is different. They might be working from home with three children in different year groups, or one single parent with an only child fitting in nightshifts around their childcare.”
The solution, Banks says, is to ensure that everything you communicate is done as a suggestion and that schools should be as flexible as possible in their suggestions.
“Make sure you make it clear it is OK to find solutions by thinking outside the box,” he says. “They can ask older children to listen to younger children read. It’s OK to do bits little and often, and it’s also totally acceptable to break the activities down into smaller chunks.”
He also adds that you should say to parents that it’s OK if you find your children resisting the work, you can use the phrase "Let’s try and do this now, then we can..."
7. Contact with the right regularity
Before the announcement of the school closures, each school would have had its own timetable for communication with parents.
However, that regularity will naturally have to change now that teachers aren’t seeing their students every day, and parents are the ones leading the learning. Ideally, this should lead to more communications, to help foster an ongoing sense of community and make it clear that schools are still committed to their pupils' education and wellbeing.
Will parents see an increase in communication as an irritation? Definitely not, says John Jolly, CEO at Parentkind. “In these uncertain times, it’s important that parents continue to feel engaged with their child’s school,” he says. “We encourage schools to maintain regular contact with parents, where possible providing an opportunity for parents to get in touch, too.”
8. React to the need
Spears has taken a flexible approach to communication, aiming to provide information as and when it is needed.
“The information we will communicate home will range from factual messages on our website and providing 'how to' guides, to offering support and guidance around mental health and safeguarding,” he says.
But there is also an element of strategy in there, too. “As soon as closure was hinted at in the media, our first thought was what we could do support our vulnerable students; as well as trying to post daily messages on Facebook and Twitter, we have also drawn up a plan to ring our most vulnerable parents to make sure they feel supported, and will be sending weekly postcards home so students know they are still very much part of our school community.”
However you tackle the communication issue, Spears appeals to leaders to put themselves in parents' shoes..
“The reality is that students left our school on Friday in a state of shock. Some will be personally impacted upon by the coronavirus in the most brutal way and our leadership of the situation as a school needs to centre on support and care,” he says.