The pandemic has shifted chief technology officers’ roles and job responsibilities — taking them from a traditionally behind-the-scenes role to putting them front and center with staff, families, and the greater community. Now, chief technology officers are playing a critical role in ensuring school-to-home communications are effective — in many cases, working collaboratively with public information officers and other administrators to identify the best tools and techniques to reach all stakeholders. Here are tips and tricks we’ve gleaned from our conversations with CTOs for more engaging, effective, and equitable communications — from the district level to the classroom and home.
1. Go the Extra Mile to Ensure School-to-Home Communications Are Equitable
School closures, adapted learning scenarios, language barriers, unstable housing situations, and more have presented a slew of challenges to parents and guardians — making it more difficult than ever for districts to connect with families. Districts have to find new ways to reach families in order to bridge the equity gap as best they can. Here are a few tips from other technology leaders on ways you can ensure equitable school-home communications:
Track and improve parent contactability. Do you have a platform in place that measures who you are and are not reaching through your daily, weekly, or monthly school-to-home communications? If you do, do you quickly review and fix contact details for any failed texts or emails? If you don’t, then it may be time to evaluate your current communications tools and strategy to ensure you’re reaching 100% of families (or close to it).
Go beyond digital communications. Does your district need boots on the ground to physically visit with families who are not engaging with your communications? Is there one form of communication that families prefer over others? Don’t discount the fact that some students may be under the care of grandparents who may not be technologically savvy. Do you need to print and post paper flyers at school sites or send them home with students? These are important questions to consider when parents and guardians are not engaging with your school-home communications.
Address language barriers. Do you have instant translation tools, bilingual staff on hand, and interpreters for the languages your staff doesn’t speak? Some districts leverage Family Engagement Units to physically visit with or call disengaged parents and guardians in their home language. For districts with English Language Learner (ELL) communities, it’s essential to have a system in place to quickly and easily overcome any language barriers to promote equity among students and families.
2. Striking the Balance Between “Too Much” and “Not Enough”
Almost every district has difficulty finding a good balance between over-communicating and not communicating enough with parents and guardians. The CTOs we spoke to explained that having a unified communications platform such as ParentSquare makes communications more manageable for families. Here are some of the reasons why:
Streamlined communications. A unified platform removes the need for parents to manage a confusing network of things like different district emails, social media channels, classroom apps, payment systems, and survey platforms.
Customizable notification settings. ParentSquare allows parents to personalize how and when they receive notifications (text, email, and/or push notifications). This ensures parents are communicated within the way that best works for them, helping to eliminate frustration and message fatigue.
Dashboards with analytics. Administrators can gauge what’s working and what’s not working, allowing schools to continually adapt their communications, so they reach the most parents and guardians possible.
3. Ensure Staff Communications Maintain Student Privacy
No matter what your current learning scenario is, there’s always a need to ensure network security and student privacy. Tech tools used within any school community should fully comply with student privacy laws. Here are three things to consider when it comes to safeguarding student information:
Communications must be secure. That means staff should not share their personal cell phone numbers for student-related communications or message students’ or parents’ personal cell phones. Free classroom apps can be problematic, as they may expose personal contact details and can allow non-authorized parents or guardians access to student information. Most free apps also do not have administrative oversight or a way to access a paper trail of communications — making FOIA and other requests nearly impossible to manage.
Simplify management of sign-on and users. People with old credentials can jeopardize student information security, and no district wants to deal with the fallout. Make sure you don’t leave people with access to information when they don’t need it anymore. Single sign-on (SSO) is an important piece of managing that process, so CTOs and other administrators have fewer places to go to manage users when they leave the district.
Implement a communications platform that protects both students and teachers: The CTOs all appreciated StudentSquare, the safe and secure platform for all student communications at school, which protects both students and teachers with administrative oversight and an electronic paper trail (with access for up to five years). Teachers also appreciate this capability as an added layer of security if any questions arise concerning student-teacher communication. In fact, ParentSquare’s security features are so powerful that many schools require coaches and staff to use StudentSquare in order to protect all parties.
Note: StudentSquare is the student version of ParentSquare, designed so that high school and middle school students can easily communicate and engage with their teachers.
4. Have the Right Tools in Place to Handle COVID-19 Communications & Workflows
Keeping school communities healthy is one of the most important things on everyone’s minds right now. The CTOs touched on specific communications needs their districts had that stemmed from the pandemic such as the need to:
Be prepared and have the right communications in place to address exposures. From a legal perspective, districts have to make sure the right people are notified in the case of on-campus COVID-19 exposures. There is also a huge need for the capability to carry out daily health screenings and to quickly communicate home to parents and guardians when exposures happen. Does your district have the right tools in place to monitor exposures and quickly communicate with staff, students, and families? If not or if you could be doing a better job, here are five critical questions you should ask yourself when evaluating health screening solutions.
Use targeted messaging. When an exposure happens, everyone who was exposed may need to be contacted. Using a unified communications platform like ParentSquare allows for targeted messaging to groups or anyone who has been in contact with a COVID-19 positive person while at school.
5. Be Strategic When You Roll Out New Technology
There is a right way and a wrong way to roll out new technology. Whether it’s to families, students, or staff, you have to be strategic in how you introduce new platforms and products. Here are some considerations:
Don’t mandate adoption. Instead, offer new technology to staff and educators, stressing the benefits they’ll receive. Once the innovators and early adopters begin using a new tool and discover that they love it, they’ll naturally promote it to their colleagues — not because they had to, but because they wanted to.
Offer training and support. Staff will have more success with the uptake of a new tool if you offer training and make yourself available to answer questions. Another alternative is to “train the trainer” and leverage your champion users to train others on how to use new tools.
Have some fun. Show staff how fun it can be to use new technology like ParentSquare. With capabilities like posts, social sharing, newsletters, attendance, Community Groups, and more, staff will quickly see the amazing benefits of using a unified communications platform.
Change management, especially when it involves adopting new technology, can be difficult for a lot of people. Beyond that, the additional challenges presented by the ongoing pandemic have given educators enough to manage. It’s understandable that some may be apprehensive about implementing a new school-home communications tool. However, CTOs can support staff by explaining and demonstrating the many ways that technology like ParentSquare can help make school-to-home communications more engaging, effective, equitable, (and fun).
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