Community engagement key as schools deploy COVID funding

Collaboration with families is crucial as districts plan for spending

ALL OF US have faced more than our fair share of challenging days due to the COVID-19 pandemic. That is especially true for parents, trying to cope with their fears and anxiety over the risk of infection and the unpredictability of the pandemic, while helping their child make sense of uncertainty and loss. It’s especially true for families of color and economically disadvantaged populations, who felt the economic and social fallouts of the pandemic in devastating and disproportionate ways.

When we reflect on the stories of grief and financial instability shared by the families we interact with daily, it seems almost impossible to pinpoint any bright spots. Still, if anything good came out of these last few years, it is a powerful reminder of how imperative close collaboration between families and schools is to student success.

As mothers, we know that we parents are our children’s first teachers, and it’s a role we continue to fill throughout their lives.

But in early 2020, when schools were forced to transition to distance learning with the rise of cases, we took on full-time teaching jobs across grades and subjects while simultaneously working and tending to our households. For those of us with kids with special needs, or still learning the English language, the challenges were much harder.

Amongst all the struggles of supporting our students academically and helping them navigate new virtual learning environments, we learned a lot. We saw firsthand that it’s not enough for a student to be physically present; the hard work comes in ensuring that they are engaged, learning, and growing. We learned what worked for our children – and what did not.

As we try to map a path forward, it is essential that we collectively recognize that collaboration between schools and families is more critical than ever. Only by working together will we be able to address the social-emotional and academic impacts of the pandemic, and tackle long-standing educational inequities that were always large in our state, and have been magnified during this time.

As district leaders are currently deciding how to use unprecedented financial resources from the federal government and additional state funds being distributed under the 2019 Student Opportunity Act (SOA), they have a unique opportunity to foster that collaboration. Before April 1, district leaders will need to review and update their plans – documents that specify how they will use their funding to help address inequities in student learning experiences and outcomes. Importantly, the Student Opportunity Act requires districts to engage families in this planning.

This last part is critical. Even with millions of dollars, districts will not successfully implement new or improved strategies to support students unless families have a seat at the table.

Picture this: A district invests millions in implementing a nationally recognized in-person summer enrichment program, only to be puzzled by minimal participation, especially among their highest-need students. Why might that be? In many communities, participation may be low because families are sending their children back to their country of origin during the summer to avoid the high cost of childcare, or to see relatives and learn about their heritage. In addition, economically-disadvantaged high school students may be unable to participate because they have to work to help with bills. Had families been at the table when the decision to invest in the program was made, the district could have designed the program to allow more students to benefit or chosen another approach entirely.

From personal experience and data, we know that family engagement is not a strong suit for many districts. Consider, for example: Federal law requires districts to engage families in decisions about spending their latest federal funds (American Rescue Plan Act dollars). However, in a recent poll of Massachusetts families, only 20 percent of respondents said they’d been consulted about how these dollars should be used. While not surprising, these findings reinforce that, in many places, district engagement efforts are not reaching the people with the most at stake.

It’s not too late to turn these patterns around – and importantly, districts don’t have to do this work alone. Community-based organizations like La Colaborativa and Parent Villages are standing by to help.

Organizations like ours can serve as liaisons between districts and families, organize and facilitate community conversations, and ensure that families who may not regularly engage with the district have the opportunity to weigh in.

In Chelsea, we made headway with our engagement efforts. Recently, we spent countless hours making calls and hosting virtual and socially distant in-person sessions to empower Latin immigrants and students across the city by sharing all available opportunities, gathering their input on what they need from their schools at this time, and communicating that back to the district to inform spending decisions.

Statewide, collectively with the Massachusetts Education Equity Partnership (MEEP), we recently published a funding advocacy toolkit for families to help them push for better learning experiences for all students.

We know district leaders – like us – constantly have to balance conflicting priorities, especially during these last two years when the main focus has been on helping our communities navigate the ongoing challenges of the pandemic. But we must shift gears and seize this opportunity.

Meet the Author
The time for action is now. As advocates for Massachusetts families and students, we urge district leaders to form partnerships with organizations that have built trust within their communities and have a history of supporting historically underserved students to ensure their voices are heard. We are here; we are ready to continue rolling up our sleeves; we will do the hard but necessary work to improve and transform our school systems.

Dinanyili Del Carmen Paulino is the parent of public school students and chief operating officer of La Colaborativa in Chelsea. LaTonia Monroe Naylor, of Springfield, is the parent of public school students and co-founder of Parent Villages.