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COVID-19 created helicopter parents 2.0 and engaged others for the first time. What now?

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When Donna Russell’s own children were growing up, she did everything she could to participate in their schooling. Now that the 65-year-old has custody of her three grandchildren, she wishes she could be the same PTA mom she was decades ago. 

But Russell, who lives in the tiny town of Manning, South Carolina, doesn’t have a car. She barely scrapes by with food stamps, Social Security and payments from the children’s father. Caring for the three youngsters – 2, 5 and 6 – is a full-time job and then some. Bake sales and ice cream socials are out of the question.

Over the past school year, Russell found other ways to get involved. She spent a chunk of time every day helping her 4-year-old granddaughter Maleigha learn letters and numbers on the computer through Waterford Upstart, a program aimed at helping kids prepare for kindergarten. She became so invested in Maleigha’s progress that she would send photos to her teacher of them working together.

All around the country, the pandemic has upended parents’ relationships with school, hampering their ability to connect meaningfully with teachers and other families. But when learning moved online, parents got a front-row seat to daily classroom life, providing many of them an unprecedented opportunity to partake in their children’s education. And they don't want to give that up when schools return to normal. 

During the pandemic, close to 2 in 3 parents of school-aged children became more engaged than ever before in their kids’ learning, according to a survey by the National Parents Union. Roughly 8 in 10 respondents said the pandemic opened their eyes to the inner workings of America's schools. 

Today, Russell considers Maleigha’s teacher one of her best friends. The teacher regularly visits their home to check in. The other day, she brought the family some milk and bread. 

It’s incumbent on schools to sustain those newfound relationships, advocates and experts say, especially with low-income families that had little opportunity pre-COVID-19 to participate in school through traditional methods. 

Family involvement in school works

Research shows family involvement plays a key role in students' academic achievement. Some studies even suggest parent involvement is one of the greatest predictors of student success. It not only gives children the support they need to complete their assignments, but it also motivates them to learn. The benefits are especially pronounced for low-income children, research suggests. 

“When a child knows their parent has prioritized school, the child learns and gets the sense that it’s an important place to be,” said Jenni Torres, who oversees curriculum at, the nonprofit behind the kindergarten-prep program Russell used at home with her granddaughter. 

Educators recognize more than ever that families play a key role in helping them advance children’s achievement. Yet more than half of teachers felt ill-prepared in how to engage parents during the pandemic, a survey conducted by the National Association of Family, School and Community Engagement found.

Only half of teacher preparation programs at colleges offer family engagement courses, the association's data show. 

“A teacher’s number one fear of why they will not succeed and will leave the profession is their lack of preparation to engage families," said Vito Borrello, NAFSCE’s executive director. “A crisis doesn't always enable them to do that.” 

Rates of family engagement in schools remained relatively stagnant in the decades preceding the pandemic, with roughly three-quarters of parents attending scheduled conferences. In 2016, according to federal data, just 43% of parents overall volunteered or served on a school committee, down from close to half of them a decade prior.

Black and Hispanic families were least likely to volunteer, at 34% and 36% each, perhaps in part because of inflexible work schedules and language barriers. And low-income schools often weren't trying to increase family involvement as much as they were working on other sorts of improvements. Prior to the pandemic, just 4% of philanthropic money for education in the U.S. went toward family engagement, according to an analysis by one foundation. 

During the pandemic, with their unprecedented access into classrooms, some parents found it impossible not to shift into helicopter mode 2.0. They incessantly hovered over every aspect of their children’s learning. But COVID-19 demonstrated that helicopter parenting is just one form of family engagement.

Despite the heightened attention the pandemic brought to families’ role in learning, just 64% of parents in a NAFSCE summer 2020 survey said they felt their school leaders valued their contributions. And 57% of respondents said they were concerned those contributions won’t be valued once the pandemic is over. 

Advocates are working to change that. They’re encouraging districts to dedicate some of their recovery funds to family engagement and, at the federal level, pushing for the creation of a first-of-its-kind Office of Family and Community Engagement to focus partly on reaching families historically left out.

What schools need “isn’t just public relations,” Borrello said. “It isn’t just telling parents what they need to do,” by sending out newsletters and having them sign off on homework assignments. “It’s giving them a shared responsibility in student success.”

As Borrello and other advocates see it, family involvement isn’t about talking to parents; it’s about talking with them. 

In-person learning could widen gaps 

Trish Malik, the principal of Laurene Edmondson Elementary in Loveland, Colorado, has long recognized that schools and families are partners. Teachers, she says, need to be proactive in reaching out to parents who are already juggling work and child care responsibilities, food insecurity and lacking technology. 

Well before the pandemic, Laurene Edmondson Elementary realized back-to-school nights and one-off parent-teacher conferences weren't enough. Now, at regular group meetings throughout the year, parents convene with teachers to establish customized goals for students and develop strategies to promote their social-emotional development. Collectively, they look at anonymized student data and deliberate how to support children's achievement outside the classroom. Malik had constantly heard from parents, "I want to help at home, but I don't know how."

When the pandemic arrived, the school moved those events online, this time placing an even greater emphasis on students' well-being versus academics. They held virtual gatherings to celebrate holidays like Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead. They convened on Zoom over slices of pie, a nod to an initiative called Parents in Education. 

Beyond that, though, Edmondson Elementary, where roughly 2 in 3 students receive free or reduced-price meals, worked to deepen relationships with its most disadvantaged families. Rather than distributing information through written announcements, educators sent out videos, sometimes daily

"The inequities were just slapping us in the face," Malik said. "We put ourselves in parents' shoes, thinking, 'What would I want to know?' ... We didn't wait for the questions to come up and tried to be proactive." And that outreach will continue, she said.

But advocates worry most schools' return to in-person learning could mean a stop to targeted family engagement.

And that may create an even wider gap with affluent parents' involvement. Fewer than half of parents made adjustments such as homework help or sitting in on lessons, according to a Harris poll published in May.

The results suggest that for many families, such involvement wasn’t possible, likely contributing to the widespread dips in academic achievement. 

Scores of students disengaged from remote schooling, often because their parents weren’t at home to support them or struggled to get information from their teachers. Students’ grades plummeted

Scores of students got F's: What was the point of failing them during COVID-19?

Absent a dedicated effort to engage parents, these disparities will only get worse, Borrello said. "Families that don’t have the confidence or don’t know how to navigate (the school system) really need their teachers to reach out.”

But access is just part of the solution. 

Schools have struggled to build trust with families that have historically been left out of or undervalued in school conversations, said Keri Rodrigues, the National Parents Union’s founding president. Widespread lack of trust among such families “comes from our first-hand experience being students in these classrooms,” she said in a recent forum hosted by the Carnegie Corp. 

“Parents aren't that complicated – we’re human beings," Rodrigues said. "You have to be a good friend. You’ve got to listen, and not just around the things you feel you should get input on.”

That sense of trust – the friendships she’s formed with her grandchildren’s teachers and tutors – and the ability to engage virtually are what motivate Russell to continue participating in their education. “I sit with one ear one way and one ear the other way,” she said, referring to the homework help she provides to both Maleigha and her older brother simultaneously. “This is my full-time job.”

And the research suggests those little moments will go a long way in helping Russell’s grandchildren thrive in the long run. 

“Family engagement,” Borrello said, “is one of the greatest opportunities to close the achievement gap.” 

Contact Alia Wong at (202) 507-2256 or Follow her on Twitter at @aliaemily.

Early childhood education coverage at USA TODAY is made possible in part by a grant from Save the Children. Save the Children does not provide editorial input.