District Responses to Coronavirus: Examples to Follow

Advocate for students and families during this crisis by using this resource to evaluate your district’s response to the coronavirus pandemic and offer recommendations for changes.
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In the last month, educators and schools have found themselves facing uncertainty and near-daily changes in policy and plans. These shifts are felt at the district level, too. Nearly every school district in the nation is working to support families and caregivers with resources and up-to-date information. And there is a lot of information about the coronavirus. 

To better understand the support districts are providing, TT reviewed the websites of 60 school districts—large and small, urban, suburban and rural—across 30 states. When these sites are effective, they provide families with critical information they need to keep their children safe. When they’re not effective, these sites can leave a large portion of families struggling to navigate, find and access the most important information. 

Educators, schools and districts can provide a vital service by helping decode and disseminate information to the students and families they serve. To help in this work, we’ve developed a series of questions you can use to assess your school district’s public response to the coronavirus pandemic. For each question, we explain what we found in our review. We recommend ways educators can build resources to share with families from their classrooms, schools or—even better—with their districts. And we include examples of districts doing this work particularly well. 

We hope these questions will help you review your district’s response to this unprecedented crisis and adapt your personal, school and district communication to best serve the students and families in your community.

1. How is your district organizing information about coronavirus?

What We Found

Nearly all of the district websites we reviewed had a dedicated page for coronavirus updates. At a minimum, districts should ensure that key information—including closure dates, student expectations, support resources and a point of contact for caregivers with questions—is available, current and accessible. 

A Good Start

While your district likely has all the information families will need somewhere on its site, that information may not be particularly easy to find. Many districts, for example, have been posting updates from their superintendent in reverse-chronological order. The information families need is there, but it’s not easy to find. 

This can be particularly frustrating for those who need to access the site through a mobile device. Try using your phone to check out the website for your district. How long does it take to find answers to common questions about school closure dates, distance learning expectations, resources and more? Is there a clear way for families to reach out—a phone number, email address or pre-filled form they can use to address questions? If not, your taking the time to find, organize and share this information can make a world of difference for families under pressure.

Above and Beyond

The best district pages have information that is easy to access. Virginia’s Fairfax County Public Schools prominently features a link to “Coronavirus Updates” on its home page, which leads to a series of easy-to-explore pages broken down by topic. “Coronavirus Information,” a page developed by the Salt Lake City School District, is another model of effective organization. A menu on the right makes information easy to find, and the large “Contact Us” button at the top helps families reach out with questions and concerns. 

2. How is your district ensuring that all families can access information and resources? 

What We Found

It’s critical all caretakers and students can access the information they need to stay up to date, regardless of home language. Unfortunately, a good number of the districts we reviewed relied on Google Translate widgets, which allow readers to select the language of the page. While this is a useful tool, it only translates the text of the webpage itself. Many of the linked forms, documents or other resources remain inaccessible to those with home languages other than English. 

A Good Start

If your district doesn’t have information available in home languages, you may need to triage. Simply providing families with contact information for staff members who can answer questions in multiple languages can be a quick and easy first step. As your district works to make translations available, you can also recommend multilingual resources from other sources. For health information, the CDC has fact sheets available in a number of different languages, and Switchboard has curated a roundup of multilingual coronavirus resources that could be useful additions to your district’s site. You might also check with the site of your local or state health department to see if they have resources translated into common home languages. For school-specific links, Colorín Colorado has created a collection of multilingual resources for schools. And many state departments of education have resources available in multiple languages on their websites. Finally, Talking Points is a free resource providing translation services to educators.

Above and Beyond

Many districts are, in fact, ensuring that all families get the information they need. Denver Public Schools, for example, has a dedicated coronavirus page with translation tabs in 10 languages. All key information—FAQs, family resources and remote learning guidance—is available in all languages, including downloads. And while the coronavirus page for District of Columbia Public Schools is largely in English, all relevant documents and FAQs are downloadable in multiple languages. Sioux Falls School District worked with translators at a local nonprofit to make their resources available in multiple languages. And in Arizona, the homepage of Tucson United School District has a video message from the superintendent for families available in both English and Spanish. The video is subtitled to ensure that Deaf and hard of hearing caregivers and students can access the message as well.

3. How is your district balancing student well-being with distance learning goals?

What We Found

Most of the district sites we reviewed had extensive information about distance learning available to students and families. Often, assignments were among the easiest resources to find. But assignments alone aren’t all the information families need. At a minimum, expectations for student “attendance” and workload should be extremely clear. There should also be some indication to families about how much they will be expected to focus on the completion of schoolwork, and a recognition that online learning won’t be families’ highest priority right now.

A Good Start

Both classroom educators and those on a district level must recognize the power they currently hold in shaping entire families’ experiences of this time of crisis. In “A Healthy Reminder to Educators During School Closures,” instructional coach Maribel Valdez Gonzalez stresses the need to focus on students as people. While structure and routine can be helpful for some, she writes, educators should not prioritize assignments or compliance over students’ well-being. 

Educators can learn about and advocate for trauma-informed practice so that the policies they and their districts develop are aligned with best practices. They can also work to ensure that these expectations are clearly articulated and available to families.

Above and Beyond

We saw this attention to student well-being in action on the “Online Learning” page for Des Moines Public Schools. When caretakers go to download lessons or activities, here’s what they read first:

We want to be clear. The last thing parents are expected to do is replace teachers. We know you already have work you need to accomplish and you’ve added caring for children to the load. What we want to do is provide age-appropriate, high-quality resources, should you choose to have your student engage in learning activities online. These links are meant to support, not burden, families. We hope you’ll browse through and see if there’s something that will meet the unique needs of your family.

We also want to be clear that these learning activities are suggestions to help keep students engaged during the school closure. These activities will not be assessed or used as a measure of student learning. However, we want to provide you with some recommendations to help keep your children academically and intellectually active.

The district provides a short list of resources for every content area and grade level, but they preface all of it by reminding families to tend to their individual needs first, and student learning—if it is a help and not burdensome—second. 

4. What resources are provided to address students’ and families’ physical and mental health needs?

What We Found

Almost every site we visited included links to the CDC and recommendations for preventing the spread of coronavirus. This is important information, but it’s not the only information families need.

A Good Start

If you’re looking for information to share with your students and their families, you might consider including a local or state health hotline. You can find your state hotline here. Mental health resources for caregivers and children are also needed at this time. There are a number of coronavirus-specific resources available through the National Association of School Psychologists, the National Child Traumatic Stress Network and others. And both the National Alliance on Mental Illness and Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration have mental health hotlines that can be prominently featured in written guidance provided to families and on district sites.

Above and Beyond

We found many districts connecting families with health resources in their communities. Los Angeles Unified School District has established a hotline for families with questions about COVID-19. And while few districts have similar infrastructure, several others are sharing outside resources. The website of Wenatchee Public Schools in Washington, for example, directs families to a local health hotline. And districts from Ichabod Crane Central School District in upstate New York to Mobile County Schools in southern Alabama are sharing guides developed by local nonprofits that connect caregivers and students with resources in their communities.

Many districts are also offering resources for mental and emotional health. In West Windsor-Plainsboro Regional School District in New Jersey, caretakers were invited to a “Coping With COVID” webinar to learn strategies for supporting their children through the crisis. Florida’s Hillsborough County Public Schools has created a dedicated hotline for mental health support and listed it at the top of their coronavirus page. Atlanta Public Schools directs families to resources for talking with children about COVID-19. And Yukon Public Schools in Oklahoma has space on their coronavirus resource page for information about daily life and coping, including a household checklist, ideas about caring for children and even tips for those with animals in the house. 

5. What resources are provided or recommended to support families facing food insecurity?

What We Found

Across the nation, districts have adapted their free and reduced lunch programs to ensure that school closures don’t leave students going hungry.  At a minimum, districts should make information about changes to these programs readily available to students and families.

A Good Start

Although continuing free and reduced lunch programs ensures that school closures don’t further harm students, it does little to address the new needs created by this crisis. Several of the sites we reviewed, however, direct families to local organizations that can help them meet their needs. If your district hasn’t yet made this information available, you might consider using resources from Feeding America or Ample Harvest to collect a list of food banks or other supports in your community. Local United Way chapters may also have resources—many have developed resource guides. And many communities have set up mutual aid groups where families can provide or request support.

Above and Beyond

Some smaller districts have become inventive about how school meals are distributed—Marietta City Schools in Georgia, for example, is using school buses to deliver food to students in their neighborhoods. The School District of Pickens County in South Carolina is doing the same. “Any child, whether they ride a bus or not, is allowed to get a meal at any bus stop,” they explain on their site. “If you need a meal, just look for a yellow bus!”

Other districts have expanded family supports already in place. Since schools in Missouri’s Lincoln County School District have closed, they’ve nearly doubled the reach of their “Buddy Bag” project, which provides meals for students over the weekend. In Florida, Seminole County Public Schools are continuing to operate food pantries and working with their nonprofit foundation to collect donations to purchase food, hygiene items and other essential supplies for students and families. 

6. What information or resources are provided for students who receive additional support at school?

What We Found

For families of English language learners, students with learning disabilities and others, a transition to distance learning can be extra stressful. Some—but not enough—of the districts we reviewed have cut down on this stress by making it easier for caretakers to find answers to questions about their children’s needs. 

A Good Start

If your district doesn’t already have this information prominently featured, incorporating or adding a sentence or two providing updates and resources for English language learners and letting caretakers know the plan for IEP and 504 meetings can relieve some of the stress that can come with having to search for this information. Adding guidance for who to contact with questions—and how to reach them—is also helpful. At a minimum, the site should include the contact information for a district staffer in student services who can respond to family inquiries. 

If your district doesn’t have the bandwidth to produce original resources, there are several outside resources that may be useful to share. Colorín Colorado offers recommendations and resources for serving ELLs and their families during school closures. And The National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools has collected resources for educating students with disabilities at this time.

Above and Beyond

Several districts have included useful information for English language learners on their coronavirus webpages. In New York, Scardsale Public Schools kept families in the loop by providing an “ELL update” and letting them know that their children’s teachers would be in touch soon to connect. And Boston Public Schools’ “Resources for Students and Families” page provides links for English learners and special education along with links by grade band.

The Chicago Public Schools Office of Diverse Learner Supports and Services developed a special FAQ that’s featured on the district’s coronavirus webpage. It provides immediate answers to three pages of common questions and contact information for caretakers who need to know more. And in Wisconsin’s Green Bay Area Public School District, questions about IEPs, including links to more information and contact information for the district’s executive director of student services, are answered in the FAQs on the main page, just before questions about attendance and tech support for students. 

7. How has your district tailored information and resources to your students? 

What We Found

Again, every district will have different needs. Among the districts we reviewed, we were encouraged to find some diversity in the information resources provided—it’s clear districts are tailoring their responses to this crisis to the needs of their students and families.

A Good Start

After reviewing your district’s page, what gaps or absences do you see? What questions have students or families sent your way that could be answered for families across the district? 

Above and Beyond

We found many examples of districts working to make relevant information and resources accessible to families, in ways large and small. 

Here are a few ways schools connected families to existing resources best suited to their communities:

Bellevue School District in Washington created an “Emergency Support” page in English and Spanish where families can find answers to questions like, “What if I cannot afford to pay for my COVID-19 test?” 

Moreno Valley Unified School District shared the California Immigrant Youth Justice Alliance’s “COVID-19 Resources for Undocumented Californians.” 

Visitors to the website of Shoreline Public Schools, also in Washington, are met with a pop-up informing them that schools are closed and signaling the districts’ priorities through a series of links, including “Financial Resources” and “Anti-Stigma Resources” alongside links to distance learning and more.

Other districts are able to make larger interventions. 

In Texas, Austin Independent School District was able to provide students with Chromebooks and is taking steps to address inequity of internet access. As they explain on their “Covid-19 Chromebook and WiFi FAQ page,” Austin ISD has “retrofitted its buses with WiFi capabilities up to a distance of 200 feet. AISD will be strategically positioning these buses daily from 8:00 am-2:00 pm at apartments and neighborhoods identified as having the highest needs.” 

Finally, in California’s Oakland Unified School District, one prominent link on the COVID-19 page is “How to Help.” Users who click through are guided to a “COVID-19 Rapid Response Fund,” where they can donate to support families directly.

We know that this is a challenging time for educators and that your plates are as full as ever. However, we also know that many of you are already dedicating precious time and effort to advocating for the students in your care. We hope that this review will help you to recognize what your district is doing well, to get your students’ families the support they need and to advocate for changes in your district’s response as necessary. 

We also know that what we’re seeing is just a part of the work that educators and districts are doing across the nation to support students and families through this crisis. If your school or district is doing extraordinary work, we hope you’ll share it in the comments below so others can encourage similar programs in their communities.

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