Last month, the EdLawConnect Blog discussed the increased inequities faced by students and communities as a result of distance learning. While access to technology can pose barriers and challenges to educational equity in the classroom, technology can also be harnessed to overcome barriers and challenges to equity, providing a key benefit to the school community. This month, we will focus on using technology to engage parents and students and to support student success.
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, school districts relied on technology not only to teach students, but also to communicate with parents and the broader school community. Due to COVID-19 physical distancing requirements, many districts swapped in-person parent/guardian-teacher conferences and back-to-school nights with video conferencing and virtual events (Zoom, Google Meet). As schools transition back to in-person instruction, districts may decide to continue using video conferencing to conduct parent/guardian meetings.
Video conferencing is appealing for several reasons. In the forefront of many minds, is its efficiency. Video conferencing allows parents/guardians to participate in meetings from any location and during work breaks. Parents/guardians who work during the traditional school day may have been unable to attend a meeting in-person, particularly once a commute was factored in; however, they may be able to step away from work during a work break to participate in a virtual meeting. Parents/guardians who struggled to find childcare and could not attend school functions due to other barriers (e.g., lack of a vehicle or inability to drive), can participate in meetings from home without these barriers to access. In addition, parents/guardians with small children at home or other responsibilities may be better able to participate when at home with built in supports as opposed to visiting a school conference room.
Separate from these small meetings, many parents were unable to attend school events and meetings because of the specific dates and times. Now, parents/guardians may also be able to stream live events, such as back-to-school night or Parent Teacher Association meetings after the meeting, or watch the meeting live (via live stream or other technology) while away from home for work, at other activities, or when completing other tasks. These meetings can also be more accessible to families with hearing loss and interpreting needs because of closed captioning and online translation options. However, in considering these positives, districts must continue to recognize that virtual meetings may create challenges for families who do not have access to internet or electronic devices, or guardians who may not know how to use video conferencing platforms and consider providing alternative methods of access or individualized support to these families.
Another area in which technology may benefit students and parents is during the Individual Education Program (IEP) meeting and development process. All school districts in California must provide a free appropriate public education to each student with exceptional needs. (20 U.S.C. § 1412(a)(1)(A); 34 C.F.R. § 300.101; Ed. Code, § 56040.) Under California law, a school district must initiate and conduct an IEP meeting for the purpose of developing, reviewing, and revising the IEP of each student with exceptional needs. (Ed. Code, § 56340.)
Typically, during an IEP team meeting, an IEP team consisting of, at minimum, a parent, a special education teacher, a regular education teacher, a qualified representative of the school district, someone qualified to interpret the instructional implications of assessment results, other individuals who have knowledge or special expertise regarding the student, and, if appropriate, the student meet to discuss the student and review the student’s needs. (Ed. Code, § 56341(b).) Scheduling these meetings at a time that permits all of these individuals to attend can be difficult, particularly when individuals may work at different school site locations, or parents are juggling multiple responsibilities. Both federal law and California law permit parents and districts to conduct an IEP team meeting using alternative means, including by using video conferencing or telephone calls. (34 C.F.R. §§ 300.322(c), 300.28) For many military families, video conferencing for IEP team meetings is nothing new. For other families, participation via phone has been a way that has supported more inclusion of service providers. The expanded use of virtual conferencing may benefit more families. Importantly, qualified digital signatures can also be used to meet signing requirements for an IEP program. (Gov’t Code, §§ 16.5, 811.2.) Thus, virtual IEP team meetings may continue even after schools fully re-open.
IEP team meetings should be conducted virtually only if the District can be certain that all members of the IEP team have access to the virtual platform and have the ability to participate in the meeting using that method. It is possible that, moving forward, IEP team meetings may be a blend of virtual and in-person, with some participants together in a school location and utilizing a shared computer while other individuals participate using the virtual platform. Even after more than a year of shut-downs and remote work and school, individuals still have varying levels of comfort and experience with technology and videoconferencing which should be considered in scheduling and facilitating meetings.
In considering whether to continue with a virtual meeting, staff may also want to consider the topics discussed, and the individual needs and skills of participants. It may be harder, in a virtual meeting, to observe various non-verbal communication cues or to engage in collaborative discussions. Alternatively, using the real-time function of simultaneous interpreting may result in improved collaboration and communication. If a district believes that a virtual meeting may inhibit rich discussion or the ability for the team to develop deeper relationships and understanding, virtual IEP meetings may not be a good fit.
While advising school clients, we notice more and more communication apps (e.g., ClassDojo, Spotlight, Remind, ParentSquare, and Seesaw) are used in classrooms to allow educators to send text messages, video summaries, and other alerts informing parents about school activities and updating them on their students’ academic and behavioral progress. Even before the pandemic-related closures, teachers were using communications apps to overcome the challenges of time constraints and schedule conflicts, and provide parents the flexibility of on-demand information regarding their students’ performance. The communication apps provide for quick information to be shared between a teacher and parent, and permit conversation throughout the day. These education apps may also provide vital translation features to further bridge the gap between parents and their children’s school. Districts should be aware that the translations provided by communication apps may not be accurate, and thus should not be relied on to communicate critical information to parents. With apps such as Class Dojo, teachers can review all communication with a parent over time, and can also identify if the parent had to utilize the translation feature, which can assist in other communications with the parent.
According to studies, Black and Latino parents traditionally tend to be less engaged with schools than others. Socioeconomic, linguistic, and scheduling barriers resulted in Black and Latino parents being less likely to send or receive communications to or from their school, and they are more likely to access information from their phone rather than computers, leading to potential gaps in being informed. The increased use of communication apps such as those described above may act as a means to improve this communication and better involve and engage families.
Improving channels of communication with parents not only results in more engaged parents for the benefits of children, it may also reduce the number of concerned calls to school, freeing up personnel from having to repeat the same information and allowing them to devote time and effort to other tasks. Further, parents can use messages, pictures, and updates from the app to discuss the school day with their child and invite more meaningful dialogue about the activities that occurred each day.
Taking a half-day or evening off to meet with parents and setting aside hours to navigate district websites are often something parents who need to meet with schools the most cannot afford. Teacher-parent communication apps allow schools to engage with parents which can make all the difference in how they can support their child as they navigate their education. If there is a need in a community, a school district could offer training or resource sessions for parents who do not understand the technology the district is offering.
Pitfalls & Other Considerations
The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act’s (FERPA) rules and protections apply whether meeting in a classroom or on a video conferencing platform, as does California Education Code section 49076 and other rules and regulations about confidentiality of student information. Thus, district personnel should be careful when discussing student information or sharing documentation using video conferencing platforms, as it is more difficult to control who may be around and listening to the conversation. This includes other people physically present in the room with the parent(s) or staff member, and people who may have gained unauthorized access to the video conference meeting. If a school district is contracting with a third party to provide the technology platform, it should carefully review the contract for compliance with the Education Code, Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), and Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA), among other laws geared towards protecting minors.
District employees should exercise caution when discussing personally identifiable student information that is not directory information. Employees should be reminded to review their video conference platform account security settings, and be advised as to best practices for scheduling meetings, using waiting rooms and distributing meeting links and passwords. Staff members should ensure that other individuals cannot inadvertently hear the contents of a meeting (e.g., projecting sound to the class FM system). Meetings should also begin with norms related to participation and expectations related to confidentiality.
School districts should also review district policies regarding acceptable use and parent communication. Districts may also consider establishing policies outlining which video conferencing platform should be used and directing staff district to use their district video conference account.
In continuing with virtual meetings and communications, districts should also consider access to internet and technology in determining the best means to engage parents and may want to provide multiple avenues for accessing information. As districts plan for the 2021-2022 school year, this is a good time to review and revise (or develop!) policies and practices that will clarify district expectations and rules for the use of these platforms, both by staff and by parents. These could include Board Policies relating to parent involvement, communication with parents, Acceptable Use Policies for District devices and networks, as well as confidentiality policies on student information.