Last spring as the pandemic began to spread and schools shut down, how school districts communicated their plans with families was critical. National PTA partnered with the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) to investigate how schools engaged families and teachers in both school closing and reopening plans and to see what lessons could be learned on how to create meaningful family engagement and teacher communication. The result was a report on those lessons and a toolkit on how to work with your school district to improve communication and engagement.

During the summer of 2020, both the National PTA and AFT were increasingly hearing how schools were failing to engage and communicate with parents and teachers on both how shifting to online learning in the spring was handled and what plans were for the coming school year. The two organizations joined together to run a series of online focus groups from across the country to address a common question: How can parents and teachers be meaningfully engaged during times of crisis?

The focus groups as well as individual interviews were conducted to answer four specific questions:

  1. Were you engaged in the spring closure decisions and, if so, how?
  2. Were you engaged regarding fall 2020 reopening plans and, if so, how?
  3. What do you want to happen differently moving forward?
  4. What, if anything, is missing or not covered with our questions?

As a direct result of these efforts, National PTA and AFT were able to develop a user-friendly process that can be adapted at the local level to facilitate conversations at the local school district level to develop policies and practices before a crisis, pandemic or otherwise, occurs. The process is included as an appendix in the report, along with sample invitations and agendas to convene the focus groups.

Key findings from the report are:

  1. Families and teachers had similar experiences regarding school closure communications, often receiving information via robo-calls, texts, e-mails, or media announcements.
  2. Surveys were the main tool districts used for communicating with families and teachers about school reopening plans.
  3. Some districts did manage to meaningfully engage families and teachers in decisions.
  4. Moving forward, families and teachers want an ongoing feedback loop with clear understanding on success and accountability for in-person, remote or hybrid learning.
  5. Uncertain times are creating trauma or bringing it to the surface, and there is a lack of adequate supports and resources to deal with it.

The pandemic has shown a harsh light on many issues our society struggles with, and as this report shows, meaningfully engaging families and teachers was not something most school districts did well or were prepared to do, especially in the crisis of a rapidly growing pandemic. While we may not know what the next crisis will be, we do know there will be one. The toolkit included in the appendix of the report can help your PTA or PTA Council work with your school district to be prepared for when the next crisis occurs.