Lessons from Remote Learning: Parent Perspectives
This spring’s school closures thrust parents into a new role as co-educators.
Countless stories have emerged of how parents are overwhelmed and how some have “opted out” of school. We at CRPE wanted to dig deeper—to find out more about parent experiences and to help schools and districts capture lessons learned.
In May 2020, we interviewed 33 parents, contacted mostly through social media or through our existing efforts to study parent experiences in special education.
We asked parents about their experiences helping children with their schooling during the COVID-19 shutdown, about how they balanced these and other duties, and what help they wished schools had provided. Seven of our interviewees were also teachers. We were particularly interested in how their classroom experience affected their work at home with their own children. We wanted to know what worried them, what went well, where they think parents need help going forward, and their thoughts on planning for reopening for the upcoming school year.
Through these conversations, our goal was to gain insight into parent experiences: digging into the stories behind the numbers reported in nationally representative surveys to help inform a broader research agenda focused on parents.
We learned from these parents that what looked like overload and lack of family engagement on the surface were often symptoms of a lack of support. If districts provide the necessary support to families, and tailor those supports to different family circumstances, we believe remote learning will have a far greater chance of success.
How schools will operate in the fall will likely vary in different states and localities, and may need to vary depending on student and family needs or evolving public health guidelines. But it’s likely that districts will need to support at least some continued remote learning for some families. Unlike this spring’s remote learning efforts, teachers won’t have pre-existing relationships with their classes to build on. It will be crucial for schools and districts to support effective co-production between parents and educators.
Not all families are experiencing the effects of this pandemic in the same way. Some families are fully connected with their schools and are engaged in learning on a predictable schedule every day. Other families still do not have computers or internet access in their homes. Whether or not they are connected, some families find it hard or impossible to focus on school because basic needs are not being met. Family situations are different: both parents at home and available, overloaded single parents, essential workers not able to stay home, one or both parents fully engaged working from home, some able to get help from extended family, and others having no one to rely on.
Families also get very different types and levels of help from schools. CRPE’s nationally representative sample of districts has found variation in types of available instruction, teacher-family contact, progress monitoring, grading, and taking attendance. Some schools provide online assignments or paper packets with very little teacher contact, while others provide intensive live instruction with high teacher and peer engagement.
Even if everything were the same at every school, each student and family has unique needs. A one-size-fits-all approach would not support effective learning at home, because what is happening in every home varies so widely.
As we will report in detail in three subsequent blog posts, the following key insights emerged from our parent interviews and CRPE’s district analyses:
- Schools help families with internet connectivity and access to food, but are less forthcoming with support for families to organize, motivate, and assist with student learning.
- Schools may undercut parents’ efforts when they fail to state clear expectations for student effort and progress and declare that work done at home will not affect grades or credit.
- Children suffer from the lack of direct contact with teachers and peers, and from the need for play and exercise. Parents we interviewed hope that when schools reopen, they will create opportunities for social and emotional—as well as academic—learning.
- Schools must consider the new demands on parents when workplaces reopen and children return to school part-time, but still need support for learning at home.
Some districts responded more quickly than others in rolling out remote learning. Regardless, no district had enough time to plan, which resulted in implementation challenges that have strong consequences for families and students.
As schools develop reopening plans, they must tailor support to meet family needs by making the following considerations:
- Provide support to families to organize, motivate, and support their childrens’ learning. Clear schedules and academic expectations can reduce the burden on families to ensure children continue learning and have structure to their days. But schools must also tailor these efforts to families’ individual circumstances.
- Clearly communicate that school matters and that students must be invested. Find ways to increase engagement. Ask students and families if anything is getting in the way of their engagement, and work to address these barriers.
- Prioritize social and communal connections in schools. Continue to find ways for both students and families to be engaged, even if meeting in person is not possible.
- Take into account the changing demands on families as parents go back to work. Address the fact that different families may need different schedules or access to childcare as workplaces gradually reopen and schools open physical classrooms to some, but not all, families.
Family-school partnership has always been important, but right now it is more important than ever. When developing plans for fall, school systems must take into account what worked and did not work for families to ensure they apply the right lessons from the spring.
After a facilities snag forced Cascade Midway Academy to delay its opening as a full-fledged new school, its founders decided to launch a learning hub for 12 students enrolled in nearby districts and charter schools.
After tracking and detailing school systems’ reopening plans for months, our research now turns to how districts are translating their plans into action.
Districts had all summer to address the concerns that special education families raised this spring. Yet, in many school systems, special education was largely an afterthought in districts’ planning for fall reopening.