It takes a village: How coronavirus can strengthen partnerships between parents and schools

Father and child walking on street holding hands wearing face masks

By Dr. Hannah Ulferts

Analyst, OECD Directorate for Education and Skills

The coronavirus crisis has turned strong teacher-parent relationships from what many have considered a luxury into a necessity. Schools need to partner with parents so that students can catch up with learning. Parents need to collaborate with schools in imposing hygiene and social distancing measures. They need to trust teachers and schools to keep their children safe and find solutions to reduce the learning loss and stress induced through school closures.

COVID-19 lockdowns, which restricted learning and socialising to the home and digital world, come with a great toll for well-being and freedom. During the crisis children and adolescents need comfort, support and structure at home more than ever. Parents also need to inspire and motivate their children to keep on learning, but the truth is, this has always mattered.

A recent analysis of evidence from over 100 studies and meta-studies put a spotlight on the role parents play for children’s success in life and the everyday challenges faced by parents:

  • Warm, supportive parenting that provides children with age-appropriate autonomy and structure is key for the healthy and prosperous development of children and adolescents. Harsh, pressuring or neglecting parenting is particularly harmful.
  • Even outside of “crisis mode”, creating warm, nurturing homes is hard when juggling multiple jobs, worrying about making ends meet, coping with mental or physical illness in the family or arriving to a new country and culture.

During the crisis children and adolescents need comfort, support and structure at home more than ever. Parents also need to inspire and motivate their children to keep on learning.

The crisis exacerbates the challenges for parents/guardians and hits already struggling families the hardest. The academic and emotional impact of school closures on students are greatest in disadvantaged families. The United Nations says three in every four children under the age of five experience aggressive discipline from caregivers and violence is disproportionate for refugee, migrant and poor children. The fear and frustrations about losing their job and source of income due to the crisis escalate the situation, in a time when teachers’ and communities’ chances to detect child maltreatment and neglect are limited.

Making strong home-school partnerships the new normal

School closures and reopenings work like a stress-test for school-home partnerships, making outstanding issues easily detectable for everyone involved. The status of teacher-parent/guardian co-operation before the crisis is no reason for great optimism: The OECD’s international teachers survey, TALIS, found that lower secondary teachers spent less time on parents/guardian co-operation than on any other task, and for two out of three teachers this was not part of their recent professional development. PISA 2018 found that only half of all parents discuss their child’s progress and behaviour with teachers. On a positive note, the pandemic has created momentum for change.

What can schools, communities and governments do?

There are many ways to use the current momentum for involving parents in learning, building trust, and strengthening school-home partnerships. Here are some examples:

  • Remind parents regularly about social distancing and hygiene measures as well as procedures in place to prevent another outbreak. The Austrian Government, for instance, uploaded a letter that can be handed out to parents/guardians if there is a suspected case in a school. To inform migrant families, the letter is translated into 10 languages.
  • Provide families with access to tools for home learning. The government in the Canadian province of Ontario provides a one-time payment to parents to fund their purchase and use of digital pedagogical tools. In the United States, New York City’s Department of Education lends Internet-enabled iPads to families.
  • Upskill teachers in supporting families, including those most in need.  Ireland’s Department for Education and Skills provides advice and resources for schools and teachers to support families in primary and post-primary. Special materials provide ideas for disadvantaged and hard-to-reach families.
  • Offer coaching, counselling and home-schooling support.  In Shanghai, China, parents received free courses by experts on parenting, leisure-time activities, as well as mental and physical health (with specific offers for families of students with special needs). They could also interact with each other and the experts on line. Additionally, a 24-hour psychological hotline and a handbook for mental health were made available for families. Parents were also invited to discuss their jobs with students in online lectures.
  • Expand services to hard-to-reach families and areas. As not all families have the Internet, the Peruvian government also uses television and radio to broadcast educational content. Teachers, parents and principals were informed with SMS and could ask questions via WhatsApp.
  • Facilitate parent-to-parent empowerment and the creation of parent communities. UNICEF challenges parents around the world to share their favourite family activities on line and inspire others to keep #LearningAtHome.

More is needed to turn such first steps into long-lasting, powerful partnerships. But the effort is worth it. After all, seeing students thriving and happy is the biggest pay-off for their parents and teachers – if not for society as a whole.

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