Since early in the pandemic, teachers, administrators, parents, and students have been called upon to do things differently. At first, there were band-aids put in place just to try to make it to the end of the 2019-2020 school year. Surely the pandemic would be only a temporary inconvenience.
By the start of the 2020-2021 school year, schools around the country were beginning to look toward the longer term. They adopted new procedures and methods of instruction; they were ready to move forward and make the best of a difficult situation, whether in a remote environment, on campus with social distancing and mask requirements, or vacillating somewhere in between.
Now we’ve come to the start of the 2021-2022 school year. The normalcy we thought would return is in doubt with the surge of the Delta variant and COVID case numbers in children on the rise. So what happens now?
As we face the new challenges of this school year, we have the opportunity to use what we’ve built and learned to take the next step in keeping students and their families connected to their school communities—no matter the circumstance. These relationships are crucial to making sure students stay engaged this year, and they will be key to closing the learning gaps that have emerged during COVID.
We just have to be smart about how we apply our assets to facilitate connections that matter.
Leaning into digital education—but missing communication
Technology has been instrumental in enabling learning to happen throughout the pandemic and its ever-changing conditions. The adoption of tools like Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Google Classroom and expanded learning management system (LMS) capabilities helped provide new ways to deliver class curriculum to students when in-person was not an option.
In many cases, however, direct communication between schools and teachers with parents and students has changed very little. It remains incredibly difficult for certain populations, including those with language barriers or a lack of access to technology, to feel connected to schools. Education is a community endeavor, and the best outcomes occur when parents, teachers, and administrators work in concert with their students to ensure that learning and personal needs are met. Gaps in communication can cause families to disengage from their school community or worse, for students to drop out altogether.
Right now, too many districts and school communities are forced to rely on antiquated communication systems that fail to provide experiences that foster strong relationships between teachers, students, and parents. For learning to be truly effective—in this year’s circumstances and beyond—this needs to change.
Communication 4.0: Accessible, effective, and two-way
The technology industry likes to date its products and milestones by version number. If we apply similar thinking to school communication, we’re at an inflection point. Communication version 4.0 is now in sight. Over the years, we’ve progressed slowly from analog to digital and one-way to two-way communication, from handwritten notes and mailed-home report cards (version 1.0) to email blasts and schoolwide text notifications (version 2.0). Even now, with clunky messaging features embedded in learning tools like LMSes (version 3.0), students and parents need to proactively seek out notifications.
Each of these versions has moved families closer to accessible, effective communication—and thus stronger, more meaningful relationships with their school communities. But even though students may not be responsible for delivering written notes home and parents can email teachers, school-home communication still falls short in both reach and engagement.
With Communication 4.0, as I envision it, teachers and administrators can safely and securely communicate directly with students or parents. In this version, school-home communication is two-way so conversations can happen when they need to; mobile-first so school communities can reach parents and students where they are; available via SMS text messaging so families with limited data plans aren’t left behind; and translated into the language that each family prefers.
Sound a little far-fetched? Maybe. But technology already exists to make this possible today.
For such a vision to become reality, communication tools need to be easy to use. No teacher, administrator, parent, or student should bear the brunt of having to learn how to use yet another “thing.” The user experience should be seamless in order to relieve stress on stakeholders rather than add to it.
Schools also must make the investment to ensure that tools are accessible to every student and family. I’m not talking about broadband for all or putting Wi-Fi on school buses; we’re not there yet, and few if any have that kind of money at their disposal. Rather something as simple as SMS is ideal. Nearly every family has a cell phone. It might not be the latest Apple or Samsung, and it might not have an unlimited data plan, but it can send and receive text messages. Plus, most phone owners already understand how SMS works, eliminating the learning curve when it comes to two-way mobile messaging.
There are all kinds of ways to handle texts via SMS, and any two-way school communication solution should be able to translate between the sender’s and the recipient’s home languages. Going this route meets the basic goals for effective communication: easy to use, inexpensive and accessible to all.
Guidelines and protections
Identifying the right tools is only half the battle. For any solution to be successful, rules should be put in place so that communication is not abused or neglected. For example, two-way communication shouldn’t be allowed to drain more time from teachers’ days. Expectations around availability, such as no-response hours (e.g., teachers are not expected to respond to texts between 7pm and 7am) need to be established and respected. And protecting the privacy of user data, including personal contact information like mobile phone numbers, must be central to education-based communication.
On the flip side, the same solution has to work for families as well. Too many messages from school can be overwhelming–they become noise. If messages and reminders are sent too frequently, schools risk families tuning them out. Teachers and administrators may need to consider a cadence for regular check-ins, only messaging outside of this for urgent situations. They may also want to consider allowing parents to opt out of specific communications depending on the channel or device they prefer for receiving notifications.
Achieving the next communications frontier
It’s a fine balance, taking the next step forward in school-home dialogue and reaching Communication 4.0. Just like the early forays into remote learning, there will be some stumbles. But we have a real chance to take very basic and accessible technologies–like SMS text messaging and in-app messaging–and use them to build a foundation for student success.
After over a year and a half of the pandemic, people crave real connections and relationships, and the kids who have been isolated from their friends and mentors during a pivotal period of human development need those personal relationships most of all. If we can apply technologies such as two-way, mobile-first messaging to help cultivate relationships and re-establish community, we will have built a foundation for meaningful engagement that will support students through the pandemic and beyond.
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