Covid-19: Keeping parents involved

Written by: Suzanne O’Connell | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Primary schools pride themselves on their relationships with parents, but in the socially distanced era of Covid-19 this has become more problematic. Suzanne O’Connell speaks to school leaders about how they are maintaining parental engagement this term

Parent access limited to the school gate, no “popping in” to the office, no “quick word” with the classroom teacher – the usual, often informal, parental contact for primary schools has been turned on its head in this era of Covid-19.

Schools are trying to limit access for parents and are strictly controlling those entering and exiting the school site – let alone the school buildings. It means that many of these usual forms of parental engagement have been disrupted.

What is more, not all parents have online connections and accessibility and we know already that Covid has meant some families going under the radar and the hard-to-reach becoming even harder to engage with in some cases.

Equally, some teachers may secretly be enjoying the lack of “interruptions” to their morning and after-school routines.

So, how are some primary schools keeping parents informed in this era of Covid? How are we maintaining dialogue during these unprecedented times? We might identify three strands of communication that we have with parents:

  • Keeping them informed – about the practical day-to-day issues, such as school activities and arrangements
  • Keeping them involved – in their child’s education, what is being taught, how their child is learning and how they can support at home.
  • Dealing with issues – raising problems or individual conversations with parents when an intervention is needed.

Keeping them informed

Unsurprisingly, paper is being replaced by online communication. All the headteachers we asked agreed that online newsletters and bulletins were now part of their regular communication system. These are being used to let parents know of any changes and to help them feel in touch with what is happening in school.

For Jeff Brown, headteacher at St Anne’s RC Primary School in Blackburn, emailing all parents has been the primary form of communication.

He told us: “This still requires parents to keep us up-to-date with current email addresses. We also use our text messaging service to draw parents’ attention to important emails that have been sent.”

Emma Meadus, headteacher at Coppice Valley Primary School in Harrogate, is sending weekly emails on a Friday: “I include a run-down of what’s been happening, what I’ve been doing and what’s coming up next week.” However, she acknowledges that this approach is problematic for some parents with low literacy levels or for whom technology access is difficult.

Relying on emails does have its drawbacks, as Mr Brown also explained: ‘‘We have been conscious that not all of our families have internet access or the required number of devices for each child and we have provided paper resources as appropriate.

“We have distributed questionnaires since our September return to gain a better understanding of internet access across our families.”

Keeping them involved

Some parents during lockdown were more engaged in their child’s education than they ever had been before. Although they might be happy to hand back to schools this term, for some it has given them a taste for teaching.

“A few of our parents have emailed in with ideas of how we can do things,” explained Fiona Lambe, headteacher at Archdeacon Cambridge’s CE Primary School in Richmond. “They are requesting Zoom curriculum evenings as they want to see how the teacher teaches! But on the whole, most of them are delighted to have their lives back so they can get on with their day and focus on their jobs.”

Ms Meadus recognises that some parents are worried about the academic hit their children have taken and are keen to know how they are going to close the gap. Emma has now constructed a system of sending out different types of information.

She explained: “I’m keeping parents up-to-date with our catch-up plan via my weekly emails. I now use a platform manager (Hootsuite) to schedule posts across Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. I make sure I do at least one academic post a week, signposting parents to parts of our website.”

How to approach the traditional parents’ evenings and meetings is proving to be a particular concern too. The usual “meet the teachers” events at Longwick CE Combined School in Buckinghamshire have had to be delivered via Google Meet this year. Coppice Valley, meanwhile, held a Zoom Q&A for parents and their children’s teacher so that they could ask questions about the year’s curriculum and routines.

Ms Meadus added: “We’re not even trying to do face-to-face because we can’t keep up with the cleaning required between visits. Parents feel more reassured by the virtual approach and that we are taking the safety of the children seriously by not bringing lots of different people into the building. Parents’ meetings will also happen via virtual meetings.”

Dealing with issues

We will never know how many times a quick home time or school gate chat between a parent/carer and the class teacher has prevented a problem from escalating. School leaders are now faced with ensuring that problems can still be discussed with parents in this new set-up.

Jonathan Brookes, trust partner for the Learners’ Trust, which has schools in Derbyshire and Yorkshire, said that school leaders were now stepping up to fill these gaps and to take the burden off classroom teachers.

He added: “The headteachers I’m working with have gone to great lengths to communicate to parents and clarify the channels available to them while the Covid restrictions remain in place.”

Elsewhere, both Ms Lambe and her deputy headteacher are now on the gate for 45 minutes every morning. This is up from the usual 15 minutes that they traditionally spend there each day.

She explained: “It’s to ensure a smooth start to the day and to be visible. A quick conversation with one of us nips any worries or concerns in the bud. It has also allowed me the time to engage with every parent and child and remember names and family dynamics – which has been invaluable.”

A similar approach has been taken by Ms Meadus: “I am still going outside every morning and evening to meet and greet, as I did before, but that’s become more important now because I’ll relay messages, answer queries and alleviate concerns.”

If necessary, there is still opportunity for a more extended meeting: “We’ve done a few face-to-face meetings in the last two weeks for matters that we all felt (parents and staff) needed a good chat. Of course, we’ve asked parents to use hand gel, sign in and out of school and wear face masks. We’ve offered outdoor meetings if parents prefer.”

These conversations are often plugging the gaps that the lack of incidental classroom and office chats have left.

Elsewhere, Joel Feltwell, head of school at Longwick CE Combined School, warned that an increase in the number of phone calls home could risk making small incidents feel more serious than they are.

She added: “Whereas we used to speak to parents on the playground, now they get a phone call home, which for small incidents can make it seem like a bigger issue than it is.”

She has also noticed that parents are reluctant to email about issues that they might have mentioned at the gate: “The office has noticed a large reduction in workload in terms of dealing with parents, as they used to ‘pop’ in for small things but don’t tend to want to email about these.”

Reassuring parents

Despite schools’ best efforts, it seems that many parents are unsure about how to fit in with the new approach.

Mr Brookes says that we must be alert to parental confusion. He explained: “Over time parents have built-up familiar and regular mechanisms with which to speak to schools. This could range from simple conversations with teachers at drop-off or pick-up times or face-to-face appointments with a child's teacher. Where risk assessments have made these avenues unavailable, I think some parents have become slightly confused as to how, if at all, they should communicate with their child's school.”

Ms Lambe added: “Parents aren’t getting to know their child’s new class teacher in the same capacity as they’re used to: “We recognise that parents are feeling some detachment and some are saying they find it hard to engage. But we are getting there and they do realise that everyone’s safety must come first.”

Ms Meadus has found that there are more queries to answer and more concerns being raised: “I think parents’ anxiety levels are much higher than normal and we’re having to support a great many more families than usual. Parents have been quick to contact me directly about small things that usually wouldn’t bother them or about which they’d chat to the teacher at the door.”

  • Suzanne O’Connell is a freelance education writer and a former primary school headteacher.

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