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  • Writer's pictureImmigrant Connections

Engaging Immigrant & English Learner Families in a Virtual World: 10 Lessons Learned

Updated: Dec 17, 2020

It’s now been three months since our lives went on hold. In many cities and states, school is out for the summer. In others, it’ll be wrapping up in the next week or two. This is a time for us to reflect on what worked and what didn’t work over the past few months, particularly since we don’t fully know what the fall will look like yet. One thing I think we can agree on is that family engagement was crucial these past few months! Truly, no teacher or district could succeed without engaging their students’ parents.

So when it comes to EL and immigrant family engagement, what lessons have we learned? Here are 10 key ones in no particular order:

  1. Partnering with immigrant and refugee agencies in the community for outreach, communication, and education is crucial. These are the agencies that immigrant and refugee families know and trust! In addition, these organizations often have staff that speak the languages of families so they can communicate the message directly, instead of through an interpreter. An exceptional example of this is EMBARC (Ethnic Minorities of Burma Advocacy and Resource Center) in Iowa. Among the many services they provide is daily news in multiple languages via their YouTube channel. On April 9, 2020, when Des Moines Public Schools determined students would not return to school in person, EMBARC distributed this message to the community in English, Burmese, Karen, Karenni, Hakha Chin, Mizo Chin, Kirundi, Kunama, Lingala, and Swahili via their YouTube channel and Facebook page. (As one can see, they have expanded to serve many other communities, particularly those from Africa.) Their video message provided information on when online learning would start and emphasized the importance of families completing a survey about whether they were in need of a computer and/or internet.

  2. We must use the right tool for the right job. Nearly every immigrant community has a preferred App that they use to communicate. For example, the Chinese community often uses WeChat. The Korean community often uses KakaoTalk. The Hispanic/Latino community often uses WhatsApp and/or Facebook. If educators are having a hard time connecting with students and families on education Apps (i.e. ClassDojo and that type of thing), use what the student and family prefer! Here is an example of how one teacher used WeChat to connect with the Chinese families in his class (pre-COVID but still relevant).

  3. Always keep in mind language access and that parents have a right to receive information in a language they understand. This is easier said than done and we know most school districts are far from where they need to be on this, but we must keep advocating for parents’ rights. (Websites and Apps that translate text automatically should be used with a healthy dose of caution and never for crucial information!) It is necessary for districts to continue to think through how their interpretation and translation services will adapt in a virtual environment. For example, when COVID-19 closed schools, Prince George’s County Public Schools’ Office of Interpreting and Translation immediately began adapting their services. They worked with their team of interpreters to assess their access to technology and trained them on how to execute simultaneous interpreting in virtual spaces. In addition, they sent out a district-wide memo regarding how their services would be modified to include Video Remote Interpreting and reminded everyone that all staff would continue to have access to interpretation by phone.

  4. Tap into the family engagement field. Many EL teachers are not aware that there is an entire family engagement field, with national and state organizations and “players,” conferences, publications, coursework, and more – all focused on family engagement in schools! We need to break down the silos and bring more educators from the EL field into the family engagement space. If you’re looking for a place to start, check out the National Association for Family, School, and Community Engagement (NAFSE). Also be sure to check within your own district! Is there someone leading this work within your own district that you are unaware of? Be sure to tap into the expertise of this field as you navigate your work with families.

  5. Many parents are balancing trying to provide basic needs and a sense stability for their children with supporting their children’s learning. Many of our students and families were living in poverty before COVID-19 and now the financial situation for most is significantly worse. We must understand that education may not be a priority for families living in crisis. That said, we cannot make assumptions about what families are going through and must keep in mind their strengths, which we emphasize in #6.

  6. Parents have the capacity to help their children regardless of their background. In so many cases over the past few months, teachers were connected with their students’ families more than ever before. While there was a lot of hand-holding with how to work technology, I think most educators were pleasantly surprised with how just how much EL and immigrant families could support their children’s education. Even for the refugee family from Congo or the mom from El Salvador who only completed second grade, so many parents took on the challenge of figuring out this whole new educational world. This often translated into success! In Ellevation’s Highest Aspirations podcast episode with Laura Grisso of Tulsa Public Schools in Oklahoma, she talks about how their EL students participated in distance learning more than their American-born students and we have no doubt that family engagement was a big part of that.

  7. Parents should control the agenda for virtual parent events (and really all face-to-face events too!). It is important that we don’t overdo “workshops” where we talk “at” parents and control the agenda. The past few months have reminded us of this and the importance of considering alternatives. For example, some districts have hosted Facebook Live “townhalls” in various languages where parents could simply ask questions in their native language. Another example is from Prince William County Public Schools in Virginia. They held virtual Parent Camps every week, for four weeks, in English, Spanish, Korean, Urdu, and Vietnamese. The overall theme was “learning as a family” but like all Parent Camps, what was covered was determined by the parents. For more information, listen to Ellevation’s Highest Aspirations podcast interview with Lynmara Colón.

  8. It is important to learn about and share with EL and immigrant families the many online programs and tools that were created for them. We at Immigrant Connections pulled together many of these resources back in March in our blog post on English Learner Family Engagement During Coronavirus. That resource list includes videos for parents in multiple languages, favorite multilingual written resources, and also websites with multilingual books online. We will continue to update and add to that list. We also regularly share these types of tools in our email newsletter. It is our responsibility as educators to get these tools and resources into the hands of our families!

  9. Focus on building relationships. Some of us learned this lesson long before COVID-19, while others are truly understanding it now. Gone are the days when we count parents showing up at school for a meeting or event as family engagement and check that off our “to do” list. True family engagement was never about events, it’s about building relationships with families. We observed so many educators going above and beyond to track down their EL students and families during this time. They utilized every tool they could think of to show that they care. Let’s continue that relationship-oriented approach the work as we move forward with our family engagement initiatives next year.

  10. Remember race. While this tenth lesson learned doesn’t have to do with the virtual environment, this period of increased civil unrest is occurring at the same time and is something we intend to integrate into our work more regularly. So we will use this opportunity to reiterate that race matters. Color blindness is not helpful and does not have a place in education. We need to see – fully see – all of our brown and black students and families, which includes race. We (particularly us white educators, myself included) must be aware of our own biases and privileges, particularly if we are doing family engagement work. If this idea is new to you and/or you are interested in learning more, please take a look at this list of Scaffolded Anti-Racist Resources.

What lessons have you learned these past few months while engaging EL and immigrant families? What would you add to this list? We'd love to hear your lessons learned! Email us at Need some help and PD around this topic? See below!


Looking for some PD on this topic? Join the summer section of our online course, Immigrant Family and Community Engagement in Schools, that we run in collaboration with English Learner Portal! This course has been successful for 3 years with teachers (EL and gen ed), principals, family liaisons, school counselors, community school coordinators, social workers, and more! With new added content on engaging EL and immigrant families in a virtual world, you don't want to miss this opportunity.

Recent feedback from educators includes:

"Thank you so much for such an informative and honestly life changing course! I am excited that I have the summer to start planning how we can begin to make the necessary transition to becoming a more welcoming environment and truly engaging families in our school community." - Principal in Maryland

"This was one of the best online courses I have taken! Relevant and useful information!" - Educator in Maryland

"I am happy my colleague recommended for all Family Support Managers to take this course! Really enjoyed it and looking forward to implementing some of the ideas!" - Educator in Illinois

"The research- based information provided in this course has filled my parent- engagement toolbox with a wealth of strategies. I look forward to utilizing this information, virtually and in person, with my ELL families. Thank you!" - Educator in Maryland

"Thank you for the incredible amount of resources you provided - I will share them with my Bilingual Liaisons and staff at school." - Parent Outreach Specialist in Florida

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