What Is the Plan? Communication Challenges in K-12 Education During the Pandemic

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February 4, 2021

Just a little over a year ago, elementary and secondary education teachers and students were beginning a new year and a new semester, energized from their break and ready to conquer the traditions of a spring semester that would include field trips, standardized tests, and graduation. Unfortunately, COVID-19 had different plans.

In March, education as we knew it was uprooted, and the lives of teachers, students, administrators, and parents became hectic. Everyone started putting out fire after fire, as quickly as possible. When we do that, it is easy to lose sight of what we do and those we serve. Moreover, access concerns, lack of time and resources, and equity concerns have further complicated education. Rather than working together, everyone seems to be pointing fingers – teachers are not doing their jobs, administrators are not communicating with their teachers, and parents have unrealistic expectations and cannot make up their minds. The result is a litany of communication concerns that have arisen amongst K-12 students, parents, teachers, and administrators. Everyone is seeking a plan that provides clarity; however, we are all left with unanswered questions.

Where Is My Assignment?

Students, the population all education stakeholders serve, are facing myriad challenges with online and hybrid learning. Students are accustomed to seeing teachers daily, which provides ample facetime to ask questions, clarify work, and check grades. However, students now must engage with their instructors in a new format. The pandemic forced many K-12 schools to shift to holding synchronous classes, office hours, meetings, and other points of contact between education stakeholders through video conferencing platforms such as Zoom. In doing so, issues such as poor Internet connection, lack of adequate technology, and inconsistent access became barriers to students.

While universities often have some consistency with the tools that are available to faculty, K-12 teachers are often left to piece together free and low-cost education tools, creating an impossible web of services for students to navigate.

These hurdles are impacting all districts – urban, rural, suburban, affluent, and under-resourced – in some capacity. While teachers are still holding synchronous conversations, they are also introducing asynchronous teaching, as school format varies based on health concerns in the region. Students now must manage schedules that are constantly changing, multiple log-ins to different platforms and websites, and inconsistent practices across five to eight classes in a single day. While universities often have some consistency with the tools that are available to faculty, K-12 teachers are often left to piece together free and low-cost education tools, creating an impossible web of services for students to navigate. When a student must log in to multiple different accounts to complete assignments, clarity may be lost, resulting in a breakdown in communication. While students are feeling overwhelmed in a way that makes it easy to fall behind, teachers are also working tirelessly to mitigate this disengagement.

It is a challenge to keep students involved in classes when they have stopped engaging, whether because they feel overwhelmed, have mental health concerns, or simply do not see the point of engaging in school during a global pandemic. Sometimes, attempts by teachers to communicate with students and address this disengagement fall short. The cause of the issue may come from mediated communication behaviors. Teachers at all levels are accustomed to sending and responding to emails on a daily basis. However, students at the early end of the educational spectrum probably do not understand how email works, and students at the high school level may rarely check the inbox of their school email account. Students simply have not been trained to communicate with teachers in this format. Expectations have changed, but student knowledge and behaviors have not. Students may feel that they are not getting enough information, but it is possible that they are not checking their email, that they do not understand email etiquette, or that this medium of communication is not adequate for their learning needs. In essence, students were not prepared for this modality of learning, and communicating with them is challenging, often by no fault of their own.

I Didn’t Sign up to Homeschool My Child.

Parents are often allies as K-12 teachers attempt to connect with their students, but they were also unprepared for education during a pandemic. In addition to managing their own changed work life, parents are now tasked with managing their child's schedule, as well. Frustration arises as parents are questioning why teachers are behind on grading or assignments are not posted in a clear and timely manner. Parents may see planning time built into a teacher's workday, but they may not understand why this does not make it easier on parents. One parent noted that while the teacher now has eight hours a day to plan and organize students’ work, it still was not easy to follow lesson plans when they sat down to work with their child. The parent blamed the teacher for taking advantage of the “work-from-home” life.

Administrators, and teachers alike are not fully communicating what happens during their planning time. For example, not all teachers are afforded this time to plan and grade. Some administrators are filling their planning time with meetings about COVID-19 protocols, best practice training for remote and hybrid learning, and other routine training required by law. While it may appear that teachers have the time to complete their work, they actually are being buried by it.

There are also mixed perceptions on what level of communication parents are seeking. A 2020 article from the Brookings Institute looked at various survey data regarding parent communication preferences and found a variety of conflicting results. Some parents believe there is too much communication, while some think there is too little. Parent preferences are influenced by factors such as access to the internet and computers. Communication concerns do exist among parents; however, those concerns are varied, which may contribute to the frustration of different parents and teachers.

Where Will I Find the Time?

Perhaps the biggest communication challenge teachers are facing right now is finding the time to communicate clearly with their students. A November 2020 GovTech article explained that teachers are completing their daily instruction, but also are managing communication via their learning management systems and student information systems, holding virtual office hours and individual meetings, and making phone calls and sending emails. The number of communication points has increased, yet teachers' time has remained the same. Additionally, teachers must develop additional materials for asynchronous lessons. For example, they may need to record a video explaining a concept or repurpose an old worksheet so that the instructions are detailed enough for students to understand expectations without being able to ask teachers for help in real time. Teachers are now completing many new, time-intensive tasks that other stakeholders may not appreciate.

Some teachers have started sharing their phone numbers to create a more direct, immediate line of communication. Of course, providing such personal information to parents and students who are minors creates a potentially unsafe environment for everyone involved. A more secure alternative is to use technology such as the Remind App, which allows teachers to create classes where students and parents can sign up to send and receive announcements and direct messages directly on their phone through the app or SMS messaging. The negatives are that students and parents must actually sign up for the class, and they may not be able to engage fully with the app if they rely upon the SMS features rather than the full application. Of course, adding another, new modality of communication can be a barrier when everyone is overwhelmed with the existing communication infrastructure within education. Further, both parents and students may find that communication via text messages is too invasive. Much like parental preferences for communication, this creates a cycle of trying to accommodate one group at the expense of another; as a result, communication can be lost.

The perception that teachers are inadequately communicating with students and parents is indicative of larger communication concerns within school districts and states.

Teachers are also reporting that there is a lack of effective communication coming from the top. Teachers we spoke to reported feeling that their administration is not listening and does not care about them, that they are not being respected as professionals, or that they do get clear guidance regarding what they should be doing. For example, one colleague and parent noted being frustrated that their child’s teacher emailed at 8:45 p.m. the night before to let them know what time they would virtually meet their child the next day, which was late and made planning difficult for the parent. However, as it turned out, the teacher was awaiting a finalized schedule from their administrator on when they would have faculty meetings that day, so the teacher could not communicate times to parents earlier. The perception that teachers are inadequately communicating with students and parents is indicative of larger communication concerns within school districts and states.

What is the Policy?

K-12 school administrators are consistently blamed for shortcomings, yet they are doing a job many would not want right now. As with teachers, students, and parents, COVID-19 changed administrators' jobs, too. Katina Pollock, in a November 2020 International Studies in Educational Administration article, reported on focus groups conducted with administrators in Canadian schools. She found that many administrators are taking a two-pronged approach to managing schools right now. First, they are focusing on school safety in relation to COVID-19. Then, they must become digital instructional leaders, a role they have not played previously. In doing this, a key focus has become supporting teachers, parents, and students in accessing and managing virtual learning, which takes time from other tasks that typically fall to them. Another challenge is that administrators are now tasked with synthesizing fast-changing, and at times contradictory, policies from government and health officials and effectively translating those policies into practice and communicating implementation plans to relevant parties in their districts.

Another challenge is that administrators are now tasked with synthesizing fast-changing, and at times contradictory, policies from government and health officials and effectively translating those policies into practice and communicating implementation plans to relevant parties in their districts.

Administrators are also working to mitigate teacher burnout. While not a new concern in K-12 education, burnout has been exacerbated by current conditions. In a 2020 article in the International Journal of Education Research Open, researchers found that Canadian teachers experienced a greater sense of efficacy in the beginning of the pandemic. Over time, however, teachers reported that their stress was greater than their ability to cope with that stress, which often leads to burnout. An article in Districts of Distinction in 2020 suggested strategies administrators can use to combat burnout, including providing fewer, high-quality resources as opposed to many sub-par resources, encouraging collaboration with colleagues, and communicating clearly. Administrators have a lot on their plate that goes beyond typical duties, which strains their ability to effectively implement strategies that could help their teachers succeed.

What Do We Do?

Students, parents, teachers, and administrators are confused and overwhelmed with all of the change and uncertainty, and it is coming to a head. There are strategies that can alleviate some of these communication concerns.

  1. Continue collaborating. While social media has been both a blessing and a curse, it is a great way for stakeholders to collaborate and commiserate throughout the pandemic. A variety of Facebook groups have emerged to offer support and resources for teachers. This level of collaboration across disciplines, schools, and states is empowering. Through collaboration, teachers can learn about different ideas that might work for their situation, find out about everyone’s unique circumstances, and get more done. The quality of shared resources that has emerged through collaboration should continue, even after we regain some sense of normalcy.
  2. Centralize communication. It would be naive to expect all communication channels to be simplified in one attempt; however, it is important to ensure that all stakeholders understand that using only their preferred communication method may place a burden on others. There is no one-size-fits-all solution to clear communication, but we can do better. School districts need to set specific expectations and endorse a communication method for video calls, emails, and instant messaging. Of course, this will require schools to provide training, resources, and materials to teachers, students, and parents, and also will require developing a culture where every individual buys into the change. Nonetheless, checking multiple mediums for information is inconvenient and confusing, so continuing to find best practices for streamlining messages is necessary.
  3. Make communication two-way. It is easy for any single stakeholder in the K-12 education system to voice concerns on social media, in private conversations, and during faculty or parent-teacher organization meetings. It is important that individuals who can address those concerns listen to the issues that are being raised. Equally important is the ability to generate and propose solutions. Rather than standing up during a meeting with a complaint, it is important to be willing to propose potential solutions to the issue at hand. When a parent is confused about the unorganized nature of their students' learning, they should contact the teacher and offer a solution that might help. It is possible that the teacher is so entrenched in survival, that a simple solution did not occur to them. Creative solutions can come from any stakeholder, but for solutions to emerge, we need to open ourselves to honest two-way communication.

COVID-19 has introduced a host of communication concerns for all stakeholders in K-12 education. Last March, our mantra was “we’re all in this together.” However, 11 months later, we are tired of this new normal. Teaching, learning, and parenting in an emergency environment has exhausted our patience. Ultimately, we must remember that we are still in the midst of a pandemic. While there are small steps we can take to mitigate these communication concerns, by continuing to practice compassion, we can better cope in an environment where our questions often go unanswered.



ANNA M. WRIGHT is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication and Rhetorical Studies at Illinois College and teaches courses in Business Communication, Organizational communication, and Communication Research Methods. Wright’s background is in secondary education, and her research program focuses on Instructional Communication and Communication Pedagogy. Wright has been active in the Elementary and Secondary Education Section of NCA for 10 years and has publications on this population in Communication Education and Journal of Communication Pedagogy.

BRIAN M. ROHMAN is a Faculty Associate in the English Department at University High School in Normal, Illinois, and teaches courses in Dual Credit Oral Communication, AP English Language and Composition, and Argumentation and Debate. Rohman has won awards for teaching excellence and has served as the President of the Illinois Communication and Theatre Association. Rohman’s past research has focused on the Common Core State Standards as well as the efficacy of a high school Communication class on college preparedness indicators.