A few days ago, education website Citizen Ed shared an op-ed on Facebook titled “As a Mom, I’m Scared AF About Schools Reopening.” And it seems the author of that article isn’t alone. Helen Haase commented, “I would rather stay home a few more months instead of being set back longer with repeated outbreaks!” Lillian Boisseau echoed this sentiment, saying “At this point I think they need to get this virus under control before forcing children to go back to school in an unsafe environment!”Social media is rife with insecurity and fear among parents as the new school year approaches, and the mixed signals from varying levels of governmental authority aren’t helping.
“My daughter's university classes are ALL online this year - September to April. If it is not safe for post-secondary to return, how is it safe for public school kids? #SafeSeptember.”
Katie Gullett pointed out another heart-wrenching disappointment for parents of youngsters:
“Educators...parents who have made the decision for their child to return to school in person won't be able to walk them into the school building this year (can you imagine Kindergarten…)”
Though there is fear and concern, parents do want to reopen schools. Beth Murphy, director of marketing communications at Scecina Memorial High School in Indianapolis, said parents were very eager to open school but wanted to ensure that appropriate safety measures would be used.
"We gauged their support for what health measures they would like to see and for moving to a block schedule, which they overwhelmingly supported,” Murphy says.
If your school or district is planning to offer any kind of in-person learning this fall – hybrid or a complete return – you’re going to have an influx of parental concerns and opinions regarding the school
reopening plan. Not only are parents going to be worried about student safety in the face of a highly contagious pandemic, but there is also concern and worry around parental responsibility for hybrid solutions that include remote learning. Parents are nervous about the potential for difficult schedules, technical drama and the stress of learning new remote tools.
This has the potential to be a communications nightmare, but not if you approach parents with clarity and detail. It can also be an opportunity for
Parents are nervous about the potential for difficult schedules, technical drama and the stress of learning new remote tools.
some schools to connect with new families, as Murphy explains: “Several large public school districts in Central Indiana have announced online-only classes for the fall semester, so we certainly have seen parents who are looking for in-person options and are switching to private schools,” she says.
Here are some tips for how to reassure nervous families about returning to the classroom.
1. Make a plan and stick to it.
Consistency is key for inspiring confidence. While schools and districts need to be adaptive and responsive during this unprecedented time, it’s also important to offer stability and leadership to families. This includes having a clear contingency plan in case of an outbreak, knowing exactly what classrooms will look like and explaining how parents can prepare their children for reopening (for example, teaching them proper mask-wearing and social-distancing).
A vague and general plan is going to increase anxiety—instead, your back-to-school plan needs to be detailed. Parents are going to want to know exactly what their child’s day will look like. Offer specifics about the arrangement of classrooms, any plans for virus testing or screening, and the communication plan in case of a positive COVID test within the school community. The more clarity and detail you can offer, the more confident parents will feel about return to school.
2. Choose your channels wisely.
Parents are getting a lot of information from a lot of different places right now. Schools have a responsibility to simplify the lives of students and their families, and one way to do that is by being selective about how you communicate with them and when. Each communication channel offers unique benefits:
- District website: The website is a central platform for offering all the details about district-wide, building-specific and even grade-level specific information. The benefit of this platform is that it is wide-reaching and easy to access.
- Social media: Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and other social channels offer an excellent way to engage with parents and disseminate information in real-time, but they are limited somewhat by the fact that not every parent is a social media user. Never provide information about school reopening plans exclusively on a social media channel—instead, use these channels to support and expand your other communications.
- Phone: A phone call is a simple and highly-effective way to communicate with a nervous parent. Teachers and other staff can provide a personal touch by dialing up a parent and verbalizing the back-to-school plan. Particularly for parents who have expressed concerns, this is a perfect method of communication.
3. Provide science and supporting evidence.
Facts put people at ease. Schools and districts that have decided to reopen for in-person learning are doing so according to information from local and state health departments and the CDC. Explain to parents, specifically, why your school has chosen to open for in-person learning. Reference the studies and quote public releases from medical and scientific groups. This level of authority has guided any school’s decision to reopen, and parents will be comforted and reassured to know that.
4. Reiterate your priorities.
Ensure parents that the decision to reopen has been entirely motivated by your first and foremost priority: student health and safety. Constantly reiterate to parents that the safety of students and families is the school’s number one concern. Explain the myriad benefits of children returning to school, including their social and emotional development. School closure was upsetting and confusing for many school-age children at all levels, so remind parents that returning to routine will also have mental health benefits for the whole family. Be transparent about your risk assessment for reopening and ensure them that you firmly believe the benefits outweigh any potential risk.
An effective communications plan will be focused not only on output, but also on input. Parents concerns can often be assuaged most easily by simply listening. Parents want to be included in decision making and they want their questions answered and their concerns acknowledged. Parent surveys offer an incredibly useful communication tool during the reopening process. Not only does this give parents the opportunity to share their thoughts and feelings, but it also gives districts valuable information that can help shape the back to school plan.
6. Provide support and training.
If your school is going to use a hybrid version of online and in-person classes, or if remote learning will be the only option for families, support and training are key. Parents and caregivers need to be prepared to provide the proper guidance to students within the home. There’s nothing worse than a stressed-out ten year old with fourteen tabs open on the home computer and a parent who has no clue how to help.
Parents want to be well-versed in the remote learning tools their kids are using—especially younger children—so that they can make everyone’s day move along smoothly. Schools and districts should try to offer as much centralization as possible—one platform or tool is better than five different ones. Parents and students alike need to have direct and easy access to training on how to use remote learning tools, and there also needs to be consistent support available via phone, email or chat software. Don’t leave families confused and stressed out about a technical difficulty when they are trying to learn.
We all want the same thing.
It’s important to remember that everyone – schools, districts, parents, students, teachers – wants the same thing: a safe return to school. This crisis has impacted different regions and different age groups in different ways, and there is a boatload of misinformation out there. It’s the responsibility of school leadership to provide a guiding light in this time of uncertainty.
The best way to do that is by communicating with parents and families in a compassionate and clear way. Provide a clear, detailed plan for reopening, disseminate it through the proper channels, and reassure parents that your number one goal is to keep everyone safe and healthy. What is your school’s plan for reopening? How have these plans been communicated to families?
Emma Castleberry is an education writer and contributor to the Campus Suite Academy blog. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.