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The move to distance learning has laid bare the disconnect between schools and families—and showed us a way to heal the rift

Finding the silver linings in a pandemic


The move to distance learning has laid bare the disconnect between schools and families—and showed us a way to heal the rift

As we sift through the consequences of the pandemic for our children, educators and education researchers are likely going to be learning lessons about our school system for years to come. One truth has already been made clear: learning doesn’t just happen in the classroom.

That may sound like a prosaic observation, but the pandemic has put it front and center in a visceral way by bringing teachers, via Zoom, into all the places children are learning—none of which are classrooms. Teachers have been able to see how hard parents work to support their children’s education. They’ve also seen that, whether due to lack of ability, resources, or their own educational experience, not all parents can support their students’ education to the same degree.

During the pandemic, schools and parents have been forced to work together more closely than they’ve become accustomed. They have no choice. If a six-year-old child doesn’t know how to set up her laptop and log in on her own, the only way it’s going to happen is if her parents get on board.

This pandemic, and all of the difficult lessons that have come with it, has reminded families and schools that successful education must be an ongoing collaboration—and that technology is an essential tool to help them work together for the benefit of students.

Rediscovering the role of caregivers and families

Parents don’t generally sign contracts with public schools, but they do enter into less formal agreements with them. The school has knowledge and skills that we, as a society, have collectively decided are so valuable that we need our children to physically go to a place where educators will have access to them 8 hours or more a day.

The school, and its teachers, then reach into afternoons, evenings, and weekends with homework and off-campus requirements—most of which require the parent, caregivers, or families to be engaged and supportive. And so, the school’s end of the contract is to deliver the best ideas and training it is able, and the family’s responsibility is to be supportive of that process.

At the moment, many Americans are talking about their rights, but fewer people are talking about the duties and responsibilities that underpin those rights. If parents really want their children educated by public schools, they have to understand that schools can’t do it on their own.

In the simplest terms, parents must model respect for the school. If the parents don’t respect the teacher, neither will their children—and no teacher can run a classroom without the respect of the children. If a teacher does everything right, teaches an assignment perfectly, and then hands off an assignment to the student and the parent says, “Oh, I hated writing essays when I was in school too…” then the work isn’t going to get done.

Education is work that we are asking children to do. Just as adults–even those who love their jobs–sometimes don’t want to get out of bed and go to work, kids need their parents to keep them on track. Getting a child truly educated requires all of the adults in the child’s life banding together on behalf of that child and helping them succeed.

Schools’ connection with parents at the outset of the pandemic was clouded by the confusion about if and when schools would reopen, but as time has gone on, everything has been shaking out. I’m hopeful that when we’re finally able to return to something more “normal,” educators will re-examine their relationships with their students’ families and continue to build upon the partnerships that were forged during this difficult time.

Bridging the digital divide

Long after the pandemic ends, maintaining these new and participatory family partnerships will continue to require technology. Now that schools have invested in all the infrastructure and teacher training that have made distance learning possible, both educators and parents are seeing that it can work well—both in delivering curriculum, but also in creating successful parent/teacher partnerships.

Everyone involved in education wants to get kids back into classrooms so they can have the social-emotional benefits of working with their peers, but even when we return to in-person learning, there’s probably going to be more technology woven into their education simply because it has become so transparent.

When I say that I’m going to cook soup, I don’t say, “I’m going to use technology to cook soup.” I don’t even think about the technology. And that’s what’s happening with technology in education right now. It’s becoming transparent as it supports educators in teaching more efficiently during an ongoing crisis. It’s becoming transparent as it supports students accessing education during a time when it is more out of reach than it has been in years.

Technology is an amazing resource that keeps getting better, cheaper, and more available every single year. Why aren’t we leveraging it to reach as many children as possible—not in place of other supports, not in an effort to remove any other supports, but in concert with those other supports? There are probably lots of answers to that question, from fear of the unknown to budget constraints, but every Wi-Fi hotspot handed out over the course of the pandemic was an acknowledgement that technology bridges gaps for students. That’s a lesson to build on—even when kids are back in school buildings.

Instead of being antagonistic with one another, I hope that through this crisis parents and schools have begun to once again think of themselves as collaborators engaged in a shared goal. We need to move beyond the arguments over accountability and re-center on what works for our children. We need to find a way to get all the adults in children’s lives pulling in the same direction and celebrating their successes.

Continuing the sort of collaboration between schools and families that has begun during the pandemic won’t spell success for every single child, but it will mean we get more of them across the finish line—and that, in the end, will free up resources to help even more children be successful.

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