Family Engagement in a Virtual World

This year was different – and Family Engagement was different, too.

Families are struggling with physical and fiscal health. There were so many uncertainties about this school year – and even next year! Our usual routines have been changed dramatically. We have new insights about health and safety at our school sites and how our schools struggle to serve all students. As we struggle to make our own voices heard, we are even more aware of families who are left out of these conversations. 

Families still want to feel connected to school staff and to each other. And teachers and school staff need these connections even more than ever.

How do we keep everyone connected when we can’t meet in person? The same way we did before: by communicating clearly and frequently, by hosting a variety of social and learning activities, and by building authentic relationships. 

Technology removes and creates barriers 

Virtual meetings throughout the state now generate a lot more participation. Parent groups have seen their online meetings filled with new faces and families. Working parents with scheduling challenges have been able to sign in (and keep their cameras off if they are eating dinner.) Participants can also keep their cameras and microphones off during principal chats and meetings until they are comfortable participating. Interpreters can be provided easily through a different audio channel, like

As we know, not all families have access to devices and the Internet, which creates barriers to both instruction and family engagement. Most school districts do not have enough funding to meet all their needs and are now scrambling.

Access isn’t enough. According to Alejandro Gac-Artigas, the Founder and CEO of  Springboard Collaborative, “While distributing WiFi-enabled devices is laudable, academic disparities aren’t widening because privileged kids have access to superior screen time. They’re widening because of all the things their parents are doing off screen.”

“Over the last decade, college-educated parents have quadrupled their investment of time and money in their children, while parents without a college degree have only modestly increased their investment. Experts describe this as a “parenting gap” that leads to a vicious cycle of intergenerational wealth inequality. What matters most in a child’s life is their family. “

Real and appropriate family engagement can help address those disparities.   This means, for example,  supporting community members who may not have an adult at home to help with online learning during school hours or who may not speak English or who may not be literate. Parents, community volunteers and local support agencies have worked with teachers and staff to ask what people need. 

You can offer to be a “reading buddy,” to pick up school supplies, to help new families learn about your school. Check with your school site staff to see how you can help. 

We can still connect with fun activities and events!

Even when we can’t meet in parent rooms or in the yard, our favorite social events can still happen online— accessed by phone or computer. By hosting social events with the same technology used in the classrooms, parents also become more familiar with the technology and can support their students and each other.

Free family arts nights, for example, organized by PTAs and nonprofits like PS Arts in Central and Southern California, are a great way to engage your community. By continuing to offer wildly popular family arts programs virtually using materials found at home or sent in a special kit, arts nights can continue to connect and engage multi-generational families which may have become socially isolated from each other.   

Francis Scott Key Elementary in San Francisco has hosted virtual dance parties, yoga classes, and more!

The National PTA provides more family engagement ideas for a virtual world.

New opportunities to build community and engage families. 

Our families need more connection – not less.

This is a great time to try new events and projects to connect your school community. Introducing your pets (or stuffed animals) on your school communications platform, teaching meditation and mental health strategies online, organizing a donation drive for workspace furniture, recruiting senior and student pen/email pals and reading buddies – all engage families by meeting their needs when creating participation opportunities. Be sure to schedule events at a variety of times on different days so people with different work schedules can participate.

For example, when Alvarado Elementary School in San Francisco recruited parent volunteers to provide tech support to families struggling with distance learning, they both engaged families by providing an opportunity for parents to support each other and helped overcome a specific barrier to parent engagement.

Share your virtual community-building ideas and activities at a Meetup on Saturday, May 15 at 4pm

Next steps:

  1. Find creative ways to make your usual family engagement programs socially distant or remote;
  2. Make sure every family in your school knows where to find information and will receive communications in the way that is best for them; and
  3. Celebrate the creativity and connection of your community!


About Kari Gray: A San Francisco resident, public school parent, arts advocate and community engagement specialist, Kari Gray currently works as the Special Projects Manager at ODC/Dance and serves on the Boards of Youth Arts Exchange, the Second District of the California State PTA, and on the Family Engagement Commission and Art Committee for the California State PTA.

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