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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Op-Ed: 10 Things California State PTA Recommends for the Safe Reopening of Schools

It’s been almost a year since California closed school campuses. And you know who is counting? Parents, teachers, and students are counting each day with growing frustration. The California State PTA shares that angst.

Not only are children falling behind academically but the social isolation and fears of illness and death are taking an enormous toll on their emotional health.

Since the start of the pandemic, the Governor and the Superintendent of Public Instruction have included the California State PTA in discussions dealing with the pandemic. We thank them for including the input of parents. This includes representation on the Community Vaccine Advisory Committee, the school reopening task force, statewide testing plans committee, as well as meetings with state officials. PTA held statewide listening sessions to gather the thoughts of parents throughout the state on pandemic related issues, and we continue to hear from parents, students and teachers across California.

Ten Recommendations

We urge the Legislature and the Governor to adopt 10 recommendations for the timely and safe reopening of schools:

1. Coordinate Efforts The Legislature and the Governor must agree on a coordinated approach to reopening schools as quickly as safely possible.

2. Equitable Sufficient Funding There must be sufficient funding to cover the additional costs related to opening schools in person. And it must be equitable. All students should generate the same base funding grant with an LCFF adjustment that recognizes the impacts of the pandemic on disadvantaged students. Opening schools will require social emotional support for students and staff, and services to meet students’ and families’ needs including safe transportation for students.

3. Extra Funding for Health-Related Costs Funding to pay for testing, vaccines, contact tracing, and other COVID-related health costs should not be from Proposition 98 funds. Every Proposition 98 dollar spent on non-instructional costs is one less dollar to educate our children.

4. Protect the Health and Wellbeing of Students, Staff and Families The Governor, the Legislature and local governments must prioritize vaccinations for school staff, early childhood educators and childcare staff, especially those who are already working in-person.

5. Parent Communication and Input School districts must provide opportunities for robust input and feedback as they prepare and execute reopening plans. They must ensure parents representing the diversity of the community are included in decision-making.

6. In-Person Attendance Parents and families should be able to choose whether a child returns to school in-person depending on the health of the child and their family situation.

7. Mental Health Matters Support the mental health and wellbeing of our students and staff by providing adequate resources to support their individual needs. To protect student health and well-being, middle schools should not start before 8:00 am and high schools before 8:30 am.

8. Expanded Learning and Learning Loss Afterschool, summer school and childcare programs need to be available, fully funded and coordinated with the school day. All schools should develop programs to address learning loss and meet the needs of the whole child.

9. Follow Health Guidelines Schools should not open in person unless it is safe for students and staff. School districts should adhere to the requirements set forth by the California Department of Public Health and county health departments regarding the reopening of schools.

10. Realistic Timeline Any timeline for the reopening of schools should consider the needs of parents and teachers and respect the most accurate health guidelines. This includes making sure the school facility is safe for re-opening.

Schools need to open as soon as practically possible while protecting the health and well-being of students, staff and families. California’s students are counting on the Legislature and the Governor to come up with a realistic school reopening plan that meets the needs of all our school communities.

These 10 recommendations were adopted by the California State PTA Board of Managers on February 20, 2021 and revised on February 26.

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