Purposeful Partnership in the Time of COVID

April 9, 2020

By Landon Mascareñaz, CEI Vice President of Community Partnership

Right now across Colorado, tens of thousands of families have embarked on a journey they never have taken before: virtual and online learning while being forced to stay inside because of major health issues. The COVID-19 crisis has provoked massive change in our education systems and our work lives. We have to be real about the level of disruption in the lives of families and our educators. Yet, there is an enormous opportunity to bring together families and educators because we are all facing this crisis together, and I deeply believe our work together can tell us about where we need to go. 

As the Vice President of Community Partnership here at the Colorado Education Initiative (CEI), my work is to support districts and schools across the state to work with families and communities as partners. There are a lot of really tough challenges districts are working through, and I’ve been inspired by the educators and school leaders who are stepping up to that challenge. Many of these districts were all set to launch major family partnership initiatives in the coming months and now have to re-tool and re-design their plans. Our conversations together have helped me understand more some of the trends, challenges, and opportunities that are coming into play.

First and foremost, our conversations must be centered on helping families with their immediate needs. Issues of food security and internet access are top of mind for families and school districts. Many of them are having to figure this out in new and innovative ways, especially our rural districts. The equity disconnects and challenges present new dilemmas for districts to ensure access for food and internet. I’ve written elsewhere about the need to prioritize this work before we move to anything else. There is clearly so much more to be done to meet these needs. However, as schools, communities, and districts move beyond Maslow’s Hierarchy and towards Bloom’s Taxonomy, there are new patterns and trends that anyone who cares about family partnership should take notice of.

Based on what I’ve heard and seen, there are two general types of districts right now: radio silent and communication spikes. In the first case, there is little or no communication as the major changes roll out. Educators and families alike are just getting the work done, logging on and then logging off. In the second case, the new model has provoked a massive communication deluge where families and educators are in more communication than ever before. Now obviously there are many other variations, but these constructs are helpful as we think about moving forward in this crisis. In both cases, there are real opportunities to build open systems where families and communities are involved in how this learning unfolds and how education becomes redefined in this moment.

In radio silent districts, families and educators are missing a huge chance to build relationships and trust during this high-stress time. This opportunity, with relatively low access barriers, creates a chance to rebalance and redesign the relationship between the educator and the family. Educators can use this opportunity to try out innovative methods like virtual home visits to check in with families, that can be welcome during this time of isolation. If educators are willing to, they can create meaningful open spaces for dialogue and discussion about this crisis that can break through the radio silence and build new trust and partnership.  Imagine if teachers committed to positive phone calls home each week? It could build new rapport and understanding about what kids are facing. Radio silence should also be a warning about the level of crisis happening in your community. Its silence could be a sign that many families are under severe strain, especially those most in need of support from schools. It may also be a sign that the school or district never even asked how this transition was going. They might not trust the schools to reach out or be afraid of the answer.  Some reports suggest that 50% of at risk kids aren’t showing up for school right now and working directly with families can help bridge that gap. Creative schools will use radio silence to start a new vibration of support and encouragement.

In communication spikes, there is a new massive flood of information and conversation about everything under the sun. Educators and families are talking about assignments, homework, virtual platforms, and emotional health. This can create real challenges for educators to process all of that information and new conversations. They may be jointly processing families who have lost jobs, figuring out how to not get scammed by internet providers, and very likely, COVID sickness or fear in their community. As the data tells us more and more every day, the injustices of our society are an easy map to see where COVID will strike next.  Therefore schools and districts seeing the communication spike need to think about how they can create formal structures to channel that raw energy into structures where both educators and families can manage. Imagine educators creating news space like virtual office hours for families, that toggle between discussion around school work and the challenges all families are facing right now. Instead of letting the energy run wild, they could manifest it in ways where families could support each other. Smart schools and districts could align virtual office hours with other services that families can access to meet their needs.

What else? This crisis presents an endless list of issues that families need to be brought into. Credits. Grade retention. Graduation. Learning. Social-Emotional health. In each of these content areas and in each of these issues, districts need to think about what the intentional design for family and community partnership needs to be. They should create or revitalize school and district governance committees where families and community members can help shape the course forward. This will be important to build legitimacy and support for whatever comes next, and to ensure feedback to see blind spots.

To help with some of this, I’ve created a video where I outline some of these learnings and couple them with what we know about family partnership from research. This short 25-minute video is meant to help provoke some thinking about creating meaningful interactions in this moment, and give you some ideas on how to take it on at your school.  Hopefully this is helpful for you and others thinking about this sort of work.

We are going to learn a lot more over these next couple of months as nearly our entire nation undergoes a fundamental transformation around school, the economy and how we live our lives. It would be easy in this moment to retreat to social isolation instead of social connectedness. Our democracy and our education system are inextricably linked, so an education system that is worse at family partnership online than in real life would be a sad statement about what we prioritize as a society.

I implore educators, families, and students to use this opportunity to redefine what it means to be in partnership with each other. Open systems that bring families and educators together to name what matters, lean in to support each other, and then decide what the future is are right in front of us. If we do that, we may come back from this crisis finding it easier and more powerful to be in partnership than ever before. These new relationships will matter deeply in a post-crisis world because all early indications point to the fact that we will need each other more than ever before.