Avoiding Missed Connections: Virtual School Communication and Outreach
Partnerships with parents and the community are crucial in virtual and remote schools. By establishing partnerships, schools, parents and the community become active stakeholders in the learning process. They can collaborate with teachers, offer insights and contribute to decision-making, leading to more effective and student-centered education—and it all comes down to communication and outreach.
These goals coincide with the vision of the Virtual Schools Network (VSN)—a partnership between the Friday Institute for Educational Innovation at North Carolina State University and North Carolina Virtual Public Schools (NCVPS). VSN aims to ensure that each virtual learning student in North Carolina receives high-quality, equitable and personalized learning experiences by identifying and supporting the critical needs surrounding virtual learning environments and virtual school educators. In VSN’s pilot year (2022-2023), VSN sought to uncover the realities of virtual school educators and surface their prime necessities to enhance and enrich student learning. The area of communication and outreach to develop sustainable partnerships with families and the community was top among the needs shared and a clear priority for North Carolina’s virtual schools (from VSN Report, May 2023).
There are myriad resources available on communication and outreach for traditional brick-and-mortar schools; however, learning environments operating within virtual spaces need additional support for maintaining and enhancing their presence amongst their stakeholders and within the communities they serve, especially when they may not have a physical presence (e.g., building). Without resources specific to the needs of virtual schools to foster these partnerships, VSN adapted existing resources and created their own materials to share with their partnering virtual school educators. Researchers Amy Walter and Jaclyn Stevens from the Friday Institute worked with Virtual Schools Network school partners to conduct a personalized communications audit and needs assessment of existing outreach efforts and communications resources, a school-wide staff communications survey and provided a gap analysis with actionable recommendations to enhance communication and outreach efforts in each virtual school. This work will continue with VSN school partners in the fall of 2023 as part of their program offerings.
Virtual schools’ strategic communication and outreach must-haves.
Virtual schools need to recognize the potential of their online resources (i.e., websites, social media platforms, etc.) as powerful tools for effective communication and utilize them to their fullest extent. As part of their research, Walter and Stevens found the following must-haves to be foundational for any virtual school focused on communication and outreach:
- Information dissemination –The school website and social media platforms are a central hub for sharing important information with students, parents and the wider community. Virtual schools can use these to provide details about enrollment processes, curriculum, course offerings, academic calendars and contact information. Clear and accessible information ensures that stakeholders have easy access to essential details.
- Virtual open house opportunities –Virtual schools can organize virtual open houses or information sessions on their website and social media platforms. These events allow prospective students and parents to explore the virtual school’s features, curriculum, teaching methods and extracurricular activities. The website becomes a powerful tool for showcasing the school’s offerings and addressing any queries in real time by providing virtual tours, videos, testimonials and live chat options.
- Timely news and regular updates –Virtual schools can utilize their online website and social media platforms to share news and updates with students, parents and the wider community. This can include announcements about upcoming events, policy changes, new initiatives or achievements of students and staff. Regularly updating the website’s news section keeps stakeholders informed and engaged in the school’s activities.
- Available online resources and support –The school website can serve as a repository of online resources and support materials for students, parents and teachers. Virtual schools can provide access to digital libraries, educational tools, tutorials, study guides and FAQs. By organizing these resources on the website and keeping them up to date, virtual schools can support independent learning, provide additional academic assistance and ensure easy access to necessary materials.
- Regular collaboration opportunities –Virtual schools can leverage their website and social media platforms to foster collaboration and community building among students, parents and teachers. They can create dedicated digital areas, as well as physical ones, where students can collaborate on group projects, participate in discussion boards or share their work and achievements. Parent engagement can also be encouraged through features like parent blogs, newsletters, forums and regular in-person meetup opportunities.
- Ways to receive feedback and share surveys –Virtual schools can collect feedback and conduct surveys from students, parents and staff. Feedback forms, satisfaction surveys or suggestion boxes on the website enable stakeholders to provide input on various aspects of the virtual school experience. This feedback can help school staff identify areas for improvement and make data-driven decisions to enhance the learning environment.
Virtual schools cannot afford any missed connections. They owe it to their students, the families they serve and the communities in which they want students to thrive in. Any one of the foundational practices listed above will make gains toward an impact on enhancing parent and community engagement, which, in turn, is strengthening the school’s support systems, building trust, fostering collaboration, promoting student success and helping virtual schools continuously improve.
To learn more about the Virtual Schools Network program, visit go.ncsu.edu/vsn.