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We’re in a unique moment in education funding. The American Rescue Act is giving $123 billion to K-12 schools and districts. The federal government is seeking expansion of this support. We now have the potential to make a once-in-a-generation investment in our schools.

We risk missing an opportunity if we simply spend the money in the same traditional ways.

If the last year and a half of virtual learning and debates about school closures has taught us anything, it is that family-school connections are critical to student well-being and learning.

To help underserved students, education leaders should use this opportunity to engage more families in understanding how and what their children are learning and how to support them.

Related: As schools reopen, will Black and Asian families return?

Even before the pandemic, ample academic research showed that family-school connections can give an incredible boost to student achievement. Involving families in student learning is estimated to deliver benefits equivalent to spending $1,000 more per student.

This means that a small effort toward investing in families can equate to a more than an 8 percent increase in total public education spending. During the height of the pandemic, 73 percent of families and 93 percent of teachers told TalkingPoints, a nonprofit, multilingual family engagement platform I founded, that regular communication between teachers and families was more important than ever.

We did, in fact, see more communication. Our platform saw a 20 times increase in the number of conversations between educators and families compared to the 2018-19 school year.

And for school districts who invested in partnering with families it made a difference: In one large urban school district in New York, the collaborative teamwork between families of English Language Learners (ELL students) and schools during the pandemic helped drive a 20 percent increase in ELL student graduation rates, reaching an all-time high.

Prioritizing communication with families has never been more urgent. Schools report that they lost contact with 22 percent of students for a significant part of the past school year. In low-income school districts, the number was 32 percent.

Supporting educators and administrators as they reach out to all families, not just those who are able to travel to school sites or board meetings, will have a huge impact on how we navigate this new school year and beyond.

Last year, over 40 percent of communication from schools to families on our platform concerned ways to access basic human services, like meals, the internet and social welfare benefits.

If the last year and a half of virtual learning and debates about school closures have taught us anything, it is that family-school connections are critical to student well-being and learning.

Schools were playing a vital role in students’ lives — not only ensuring that students were learning online, but also that they had internet access, a place to study and access to mental health services.

All over the country, educators assumed this larger role in supporting student needs. A middle school teacher in North Carolina helped counsel two of her students who had attempted suicide during isolation. An administrator in Washington helped low-income families and students in her district get access to food during remote learning.

The past year and a half have transformed home-school connections, building a healthy foundation for schools to build on. Families gained new perspectives and insights about their children and their schools, while educators saw firsthand what was possible when they embraced families as true partners in their students’ success.

What’s more, teachers identified effective home-to-school communication as a critical practice they want to continue: 99 percent of educators we surveyed said that regular teacher-family communication will be “equally important” or even “more important” next year. In another recent survey, educators told us that in the new school year, they wish to understand each student’s circumstances deeply; families told us that they are hungry for a better understanding of how their students are progressing and what is happening at school. Families and caregivers, who possess a vast wealth of information about their students, said that they want more frequent communication with teachers.

The pandemic has taken a greater toll on families and students who live in poverty. Only 43 percent of educators we surveyed at schools serving overwhelmingly low-income families said that families were able to effectively manage learning at home.

Furthermore, even though more families were feeling connected to students’ learning, that connection did not lead to an increased confidence in understanding how students were performing.

This is a moment to invest in initiatives that will fundamentally change the trajectory of the more than 35 million students who live in under-resourced communities or are from immigrant households.

The exciting part is that school systems have the extra resources to invest in what works and do something different for the future generation of the workforce.

The pandemic gave us the ability to pause, reassess and reset personally; we should also do this for our education system. To build back better, we need to invest in family-school partnerships that lay the groundwork for the future.

Heejae Lim is the founder of TalkingPoints, a nonprofit, multilingual educational technology platform that helps teachers and families connect for student success.

This story about family-school connections was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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