The IEL Rise Up for Equity Virtual Summit was held June 1-5, 2020. While previously planned as a week-long in-person event in Los Angeles, California, the COVID-19 pandemic forced the organizers to take the conference virtual. The West Virginia Family Engagement Center (WVFEC) Family Engagement Specialists were certainly disappointed, but each of us were eager to gain knowledge, insight and strategies from conference speakers through the virtual sessions. To account for attendees differing times zones, adult learning styles, and other attendee commitments, five hours of virtual sessions were delivered daily, throughout the month of June. Each Family Engagement Specialist had the opportunity to participate in one week of the virtual conference. Family Engagement Specialists will share their experiences and the information they gathered through session summaries and takeaways.
This is certainly an unprecedented time in our lives. In addition to the challenges faced in the country surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, just days prior to the kickoff of the virtual conference, large scale protests and unrest spread across the United States following the death of George Floyd, a 46-year-old African American man who was killed during an arrest by a Minneapolis police officer. Speakers throughout the week focused their remarks on equity issues that have surfaced and others that have been magnified by recent events. From a family engagement lens, a few common themes among conference speakers included: Community, Communication, and Social Emotional Learning/Student Supports.
Community. Over the last three months, families and caregivers have been thrust into the role of educator in the home and have turned to their communities for different supports during this time. Unfortunately, some of these relationships have not yet been established, and community members are overlooked as key stakeholders in academic and social and emotional educational efforts. As we look to the future, the benefits of involving the community are now recognized.
Communities and community members hold a wealth of knowledge about the history, experiences, and needs and relationships between communities, schools, and families should be called upon to provide input in the future.
Communication. The closure of schools during the Covid19 pandemic has increased the emphasis on and the need for strong communication channels and relationships between schools and families. Families and caregivers began, with little notice, serving as the primary learning facilitators for their children. While some schools were well prepared with alternate ways of reaching families and platforms for continued learning, others were not due the lack of available technology, connectivity issues for students and staff, and the immediate nature of the closure. This coupled with the lack of strong communication strategies between schools and families left many on both sides struggling. Some schools and teachers were unable to check on their students and contact families about supportive services such as print materials availability and vital food services. Families were unsure of how to help their children with their school work and social emotional needs. Based on strategies and best practices shared during the IEL conference, the WVFEC is prepared to help schools enhance their communication efforts and strategies for building relationships with all families and caregivers for the coming school year.
Social and Emotional Learning/Student Supports. It should come as no surprise that the events over the last three months have changed many. Students, teachers, administrators, staff, families and communities have been impacted on varying levels. Many students who previously received additional support services at school, no longer received these needed services during the school closure. Families and caregivers quickly recognized the impact these missing services were having on their children and began to seek ways to provide support for them in the home. While some external agency supports were available, many families are unable to pay the high costs. One mother shared her story of how she was forced to draw on her own creativity to find ways to help her child. Her daughter struggled with significant anxiety and self-esteem issues that seemed to increase during school closure.
As the reentry process for schools begins over the next few months, we must remember that in addition to the students who have been without needed services for almost five months, some students who had not previously been identified as needing support services may be in a position to need them now. Organizations, including the West Virginia Family Engagement Center, are focused on helping schools develop strategies for ensuring all students in need of additional student supports receive them, and programing concentrated on Social and Emotional Learning are in place school-wide to address the needs of all students, teachers, and school staff.
As we move forward in to the summer and prepare for school re-entry, regardless of how it looks, one thing remains. We must continue our efforts to connect with communities, build relationships with and create more solid communication strategies with families, and identify supportive services for children and families both in and outside of the school building. Families should be recognized as experts in their children and should be called upon to be a voice in their child’s educational journey. Community input should be sought to ensure community members’ vast knowledge and history inform program development and implementation. With the knowledge gained, the WVFEC is well positioned to continue to support family engagement and looks forward to supporting schools with all of these efforts.
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