If You Want to Help Students, Support Their Parents

Public policy efforts have been focused primarily on helping institutions – like schools – get back on solid footing. While this is a critical step, it overlooks the need to support worn-out families.

I admit: It’s tempting. As the pandemic recedes and schools close for the summer, it’s hard not to want to forget all about the educational disaster of the past year and turn our attention to a “normal” back-to-school season this fall. Once businesses are reopen and kids are back in school, we can all breathe easy, right?

But the truth is, school closures were just one facet of a catastrophic interruption of childhood whose consequences were far more than academic. The burden fell most acutely on parents and caregivers. After all, during the grim months of online instruction, families rather than educators served as the first line of daily support as students battled boredom, social isolation, loss of physical exercise, snack-y eating habits, excessive screen time, and depression… among other things. Meanwhile, many caregivers were also trying to hold down jobs and avoid getting infected. It was herculean on the best day.

Public policy efforts have been focused primarily on helping institutions – like schools – get back on solid footing. While this is a critical step, it overlooks the need to support worn-out families.

After all, full recovery from the pandemic requires that families feel able, willing, and confident to guide their children beyond the crisis. Parents and caregivers are better positioned than schools to address kids’ overall needs and they can’t do it if they have surrendered to exhaustion. Neglecting parents could have massive social and economic costs that go far beyond missed academic learning for students.

What can we do? Here are three practical priorities.

1 | Offer parents and caregivers personalized support.

This spring at EdNavigator, we piloted a series of one-to-one conversations between caregivers and our Navigators (expert education advisors). We call them “Education Check-Ins.” During these 30-45 minute audio or video calls, Navigators listened to parent observations, concerns, and questions on a host of topics ranging from loss of motivation to interrupted special education services. Together, they developed next steps that turned into a written plan. Feedback from participants was universally positive. As one parent said, it was “great to talk to someone who understands what I am going through.” But these types of in-depth conversations are the exception, not the rule, in education today. Surely, we can leverage federal recovery resources to ensure that every parent who wants help mapping out a plan to support their child’s success can get one.

2 | Ensure new spending truly benefits families.

The federal government has appropriated an astonishing sum of money. Most of it will be disbursed according to existing formulas to benefit districts and schools serving low-income students. There is a real risk that instead of underwriting desperately needed services for kids, these dollars become a windfall for systems in the form of increased hiring and higher employee compensation. Having slightly smaller class sizes might benefit students, but is that solution going to address the breadth of problems posed by the pandemic? Kids didn’t just miss school – they missed being kids. Most parents would prefer to use some of that federal funding to afford great summer camps, music lessons, sports leagues, and tutoring over the next year or two. Why not let them by giving them the chance to direct some of the resources? Additionally, schools could offer expanded after-school programming at little or no cost to families, giving back some of the time parents haven’t had while they’ve been supervising remote learning.

3 | Tell parents the truth.

Each student’s pandemic experience was unique. Some hated remote learning and struggled to continue engaging. Others thrived. Families deserve to get the best possible information about their child’s status so they can ensure support where it is needed. Unfortunately, as we’ve shown in the past, communication about student progress is often a confusing mess. States can play a helpful role by translating results from annual tests into practical terms. For instance, following the pandemic, is a student more or less at-risk of not graduating from high school? It is possible to generate accurate projections based on past patterns that provide timely help to ensure lost ground is only temporary.

Our future strategy for education ought to embrace parents as the true partners they have been during the pandemic. Supporting them is the best way to support students.

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