Flexibility, Compassion, and Intentionality: Making the Pivot to Virtual Programming
In spring 2020, the sudden school closures triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic caught students, families, and teachers off guard. The sudden school closures also created challenges for college access and support programs like the ones housed in The University of Kansas Center for Educational Opportunity Programs. One of the Center’s largest programs is the GEAR UP program that serves 3,400 students in a large, urban school district in Kansas City, Kan. The 2019–2020 school year was the third year of the seven-year GEAR UP grant and the cohort of students was in the eighth and ninth grades.
March 12, 2020, was the last day of the third academic quarter before and the day that the district began their six-day spring break. During this break, the Governor of Kansas announced all schools in the state would discontinue in-person educational services for the remainder of the school year in response to COVID-19. As a result, GEAR UP had to also strategically shift the traditionally in-person programming to a virtual format. Embracing three major tenets helped to successfully execute this transition.
This document highlights the strategies used to harness student-family engagement in a virtual environment, as well as the lessons learned.
Before the pandemic, the GEAR UP program primarily used phone outreach as a method to recruit for and supplement in-person services. This communication strategy relied on a scripted message that provided families a general overview of GEAR UP’s mission and services available. However, in the wake of the pandemic, this strategy had to be re-imaged to accommodate the program’s new virtual service delivery model. Rather than just pushing out a general message about the program, phone calls became a more targeted service. The original script was re-written to include semi-structured questions as a guide to facilitate a check-in with families to better understand how their personal situations were being affected by the pandemic (e.g., technology issues, food insecurities, etc.). These phone calls allowed staff to develop a deeper connection with families and students by offering them comfort and support, as well as connecting them with specific community resources to meet their immediate needs. Staff reported that typical conversations included helping families access free internet services, as well as how to access the district’s online platform where homework assignments were housed.
Flexibility by GEAR UP staff was essential to reach as many families as possible. Staff quickly recognized the need to concentrate on calling time in the late afternoon and evening hours to maximize the likelihood of actually reaching a person and not voicemail. To accommodate the diverse language needs of our families and students, Google Translate was used to facilitate an initial conversation with non-English speaking families. If the family then indicated that they wanted a more detailed conversation, it was arranged for a native-speaking staff member to follow up
To ensure students retained access to those services, we posted links to free, online activities on our website for each required category. The resources that we chose for the website included links from ClaimYourFuture.com, MoneyFit.Org, PBS, and Google Arts and Culture. We also utilized YouVisit.com to encourage students to explore college options.
Before making activities available to our students through the website, we had to determine a way to prove that students completed each activity for official grant data collection purposes. Staff initially considered having students send an email answering specific questions or send a picture of the completed activity screen. In order to simplify the process for students, students were asked to self-report their activity engagement using a Google Form. The forms prompted the students to reflect upon what they learned from the activity. To help motivate students to engage in the online activities the website outline a wide variety of incentives students could receive upon completion of the activity.
SOCIAL MEDIA EXPANSION
Before the pandemic, GEAR UP’s social media was aimed at increasing parent engagement and awareness of programming. Similar to our phone outreach, our social media strategy had to be re-defined. To ensure a strategic rollout, GEAR UP staff worked with a communications coordinator to develop a comprehensive strategy for posting on Facebook and Instagram. While we knew that our message still needed to reinforce our program’s overall mission of developing a college-going mindset, we also suspected our students were likely to feel burned out by the online learning. Rather than exacerbate this fatigue, GEAR UP’s social media strategy was designed to provide levity and stress relief. One of the first things we posted was a collection of our staff members’ baby photos and a challenge for our followers to match the staff members with their pictures. Subsequent posts included GEAR UP Bingo, TikTok-style videos while sporting GEAR UP apparel, and a GEAR UP fitness challenge. Analysis of the posts by our communications coordinator revealed posts that included the voices and/or faces of our staff members greatly outperformed other posts that were more text-heavy. For example, a post featuring our staff all wearing t-shirts from their respective colleges sparked a great deal of engagement (in the form of clicks, likes, comments, and shares) and ultimately reached over four times as many users as our more fact-based, impersonal posts.
This insight helped us to become more intentional about the content in our posts so we could reach as many of our students and their families as possible.
Although social media activities connect our families with GEAR UP, we also wanted to provide more opportunities for synchronous learning. With the assistance of our communications coordinator, we decided to host biweekly “parties” using Zoom. To maximize the appeal of these programs to our students, the staff worked to create an informal and celebratory environment. Similar to our social media approach, we wanted to create a stress-free environment where students could connect with their peers and have fun. For the first scheduled party, staff members recruited a well-known YouTube personality, Kalen Allen, who is an alumnus of Kansas City, Kansas Public Schools. This virtual party provided students exposure to both a cultural experience and career exploration, two of our required service delivery categories.
The next Zoom party featured a well-known local teacher and football coach hosting a game show with a college and career theme. Students appeared very happy to see a favorite teacher make an additional effort to connect with them. Because of this, our initial impression was that Zoom parties were a good way to deliver services in our targeted categories and maintain an overall sense of community. Unfortunately, however, Zoom party attendance fell off sharply after the first two events. Challenging our assumption that this model of service delivery would be an effective approach in our virtual environment.
To ensure students had necessary academic supports during their transition to a virtual learning environment, our program also offered students virtual tutoring and homework help. After discovering that the Zoom platform has a maximum number of concurrent sessions that can be hosted by one user account, we were able to establish recurring Zoom meeting times for each tutor/subject/grade combination. Students dropped into the zoom meetings during specific time slots, which were publicized on our website, in addition to being suggested by teachers. While our official data collection shows that fewer than a dozen students took advantage of virtual tutoring services, the students who did use the service used it heavily, as much as ninety minutes per day. Several students became regular attendees of particular tutors and asked the tutors to tutor them in subjects that were not the tutors’ officially listed subject area — though in those cases, the tutors were still able to help the students, once again demonstrating flexibility as well as compassion for the students.
Innovative ways to increase family engagement are the goal of GEAR UP and the COVID-19 pandemic hastened the process of finding new ways to connect with GEAR UP participants. In addition to new strategies, the way that GEAR UP operated with flexibility, compassion, and intentionality has led our program through a successful transition from in-person to virtual programming.
By Joanna Sullivan, Elizabeth Mounteer, Kaitlin Knapp, LaCretia Wooten, and Meghan Ecker-Lyster. Produced by CEOP Research, Evaluation & Dissemination.