Schools and Communication: A Parent Explainer
Amid this coronavirus challenge, we’re seeing the importance of clear communication between schools and families. Because of the many individuals involved in communicating all things school, a clear understanding of what is happening can sometimes be confusing. Especially for parents.
For this parent explainer, we’re jumping into the wild world of communication channels. My hope is to provide some clarity on the methods and means schools use to keep everyone informed.
First, a Primer on Laws
We do have guidelines on what and how communication occurs between schools and parents. The first and most important is the federal law FERPA (Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act). Basically, this law governs who can see and access student information. You, as a parent, have access to your student’s information. But, and this will make sense in a bit, you don’t have access to other students’ academic information.
Second, many states have public record laws that define retention periods of information and communication. For example, in Ohio, schools are required to retain some types of email for a period of time.
Finally, many school boards define policies on how communication and records are supposed to happen in their district.
All of which is to say, schools need to be intentional and prudent with their methods of communication.
By far, the most common form of communication is email. It comes in different ways:
- Email lists
- One to one
Today, most schools give their students email addresses with their school domain. But, and this is key, many schools set limits on what students can do with their email. For example, a common framework among districts in Ohio:
- K-5 students can ONLY email their teachers. They can only receive email from their teachers.
- 6-8 students can ONLY email their teachers and each other.
- 9-12 students can email whomever.
As a parent, don’t be surprised to find out that your student cannot send or receive emails from you. That said, email is one of the best ways to communicate with your student’s teachers. Keep in mind that all email will be archived and accessible via public record law (with some exceptions).
What is an appropriate timeframe to expect a response to an email? This can depend. I’ve seen most schools set the norm at 24 to 48 hours, depending on what is happening that week.
Text Messages and Text Messaging Services
In terms of realtime communication, many districts use text messages or a bundled text messaging service. Some of the more common ones are Remind, School Messenger, and Twilio.
As a parent, you’ll want to make sure the school has the correct phone number (this is a common issue with schools) and you are on the correct call list.
What about text messages between staff and students or between staff and parents? This is generally discouraged for a host of reasons. Direct text messaging a teacher involves that staff member’s personal device, which is not usually covered by board policy or laws. With this in mind, some texting services (for example, Remind) provide a means to text teachers in a safe and controlled manner.
The School Website
School websites are usually pretty good at static, non-moving news. Districts frequently update their front page with news, but most usage patterns show that parents don’t use the websites as their primary news source. News posts typically follow a social network two-step. A communication director posts on the school website, then shares the news to Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
This social network two-step helps the school comply with record retention rules and keeps messages mostly centralized.
For parents, Facebook and Instagram tend to be a very popular method of communication. Twitter is very popular with educators,especially from a professional development perspective.
That said, social media is likely not the best place to have meaningful conversations between schools and parents. Keep in mind that anything on social media will be public (remember, FERPA). Additionally, it’s rather easy for conversations to get sidetracked into personal agendas.
As a best practice, schools use social media for positive PR and the sharing of common news.
Announcements and Communication in Abre
Online gradebooks tend to only feature one-way communication. Parents receive occasional email updates on missing assignments or updated grades. Many gradebooks miss the full context of what is happening, both academically and within the social function of the classroom.
That said, grades are a supercritical channel for attracting parent eyes. Schools and districts that are able to merge grades with other key elements of their schools (for example, targeted announcements) are more likely to get higher levels of understanding from parents.
Learning Management Systems (LMSs)
A learning management system is where teachers conduct online classes. Some of the most popular ones are Google Classroom, Canvas, and Schoology. LMSs feature a combination of tools that allow teachers to post and grade assignments while distributing core teaching content.
LMSs will get their own parent explainer (next week!). But suffice to say, they’re a powerful tool for delivering and managing instruction. This is particularly true with school closures due to the coronavirus.
LMSs are useful for communicating between students and staff. Yet because of privacy concerns and laws (FERPA), parents usually have limited access to a school’s LMS. Understanding how and what your student is learning is more based on what you see via grades and student self-reporting.
What about Phone Calls?
Absolutely. A common form of communication is the (usually) reliable phone call home. Voice calls can be personable and help schools connect in empathetic ways.
Nonetheless, voice calls present a few challenges. They’re not really practical and scalable for common types of communications (for example, assignment due dates). They take a good amount of time. Some educators are uncomfortable using their own devices for calling students.
Some teachers are creative and like to roll with their own methods of communication. I personally ran my classroom off a combination of a WordPress site and my own LMS. Some teachers use Google Sites as their hub of learning.
Of course, this makes things complicated for parents. As a parent, you don’t want to necessarily hunt through a million sources to find communications. This is why many schools and districts try and lay down some common expectations for all teachers. Centralizing everything is a dream goal for many schools and parents.
Which Brings Me to Abre
One of the core features of Abre is bringing many levels of communication and information into one central location. We do this by having announcements and headlines tailored to the end-user. We integrate and link with third party information sources like gradebooks, LMSs, and social media sites. We display student information in ways that supports effective communication.
That’s a Lot
Indeed. Tracking all the various communication channels takes purposeful attention and organization. Intentionality is important.
During the challenges of coronavirus, my wife and I typically spend a good 10 minutes in the morning organizing and checking the various communications from school and teachers. We try to model practical organization skills for our children. Taking time to gauge how teachers are doing, what assignments are due (and what they entail), as well as essential announcements is very important.
Do you have a preferred method of communication between schools and parents? Let us know your thoughts below.