Get ideas and tips to make this virtual kickoff event a success for you and your students' families.

How to Host a Virtual Back-to-School Night

Back-to-school night is an exciting annual ritual for parents and caregivers, teachers, and administrators. It's when we begin a new relationship with our classroom community and meet the adults who will be our partners in supporting our students' education. Given the restrictions on large-group gatherings and the fact that many schools are not returning to in-person instruction for the time being, back-to-school nights are going to look a lot different this year.

For some schools, these meetings might happen before school even begins, giving everyone a chance to get essential information about getting started with distance learning. For others, teachers will be in regular contact with families for a week or longer before any kind of school-wide virtual event takes place. Some schools may choose to do an administrator-led event and let teachers decide whether classroom-focused meetings will be synchronous, asynchronous, as a class group, or with families and teachers one-on-one. Other schools will want to formalize the plans so that all classes have similar interactions.

No matter the format and time frame for your back-to-school meetings with families, a couple of things are most likely true:

  1. You're going to have to do this virtually or over the phone.
  2. Parents are going to have a lot of questions.

Given this unusual back-to-school season, we wanted to offer some ideas and tips for making this virtual kickoff event a success for you and your students' families. We've included some modifications and options to help you reach families with inadequate or no tech access at the beginning of the year.

Get input from families to help you plan.

As soon as you have a class list and parent/caregiver contact information, connect with your students' families and take the pulse of your new classroom community. Re-create your standard start-of-the-year surveys (getting to know the student, parent contact info and preferences, etc.) using an online tool like Google Forms. This year, create a new survey to give families a chance to share the questions and concerns they have about the upcoming year. You can use their answers to inform your back-to-school materials.

Low-tech modification: You may not know yet if families have adequate technology access at home. If you don't have an email address or don't get a response to your email within a few days, reach out by phone.

Don't wait for back-to-school night to meet families.

Your district or school may already have expectations for one-on-one meetings with families. If they don't, consider taking the initiative and scheduling them yourself during the first week of school. (Have families reserve slots using a tool like SignUpGenius, or you can just use a Google spreadsheet.) The sooner students and families have a chance to establish a relationship with you, the better.

You don't need to go over all your back-to-school info in this first meeting with families. That can be sent out for them to read on their own time. But consider a short video call where you introduce yourself, meet your students and their caregivers, and give them a little information about what's happening this year. For middle and high school teachers with a high number of students, you can create a Flip for each class for an asynchronous first meeting. Kick it off with an "About me" video, and then invite parents to respond by introducing themselves and asking any questions they have.

Low-tech modification: Again, you can always call. Another option is a socially distanced/masked visit outside their home or at another location.

Share info early and try not to overwhelm.

There's a lot of info to cover this year. And your students' parents wanted it yesterday! Save yourself a lot of stress when you meet with families by getting them as much information as possible ahead of time. This way you can focus on key information when you're together and give families an opportunity to ask questions.

It can be tricky organizing all of the important information in a way that's not overwhelming. We've seen lots of creative ideas for organizing all of your back-to-school resources online -- from interactive digital syllabuses and hyperdocs to the highly popular Bitmoji classroom. However you decide to put it together, consider including the following:

  • Documents from administration about state and local guidelines, distance learning, and school-issued devices
  • Distance learning classroom norms (see templates for grades K–5 and 6–12)
  • Learning goals for the year
  • An overview of your distance learning classroom, including curriculum and learning tools
  • Communication cadence and calendar
  • Teacher contact info and availability
  • How and where students will be celebrated
  • Parent participation and roles
  • Homework and assessment
  • Social and emotional support

Low-tech modification: A printed packet of resources might be overwhelming, but it will get them the information they need. Get it in the mail or drop it by their home as soon as you can.

And be sure to provide resources in families' preferred languages. Google Translate isn't perfect, but it will do if you don't have translation support from your school or district.

Focus on building relationships.

Once you gather all your students' families together for a synchronous meeting (on Zoom, Hangouts, or another conferencing tool), you may be tempted to get right to business. However, try to slow down and give everyone (parents and students!) a chance to meet each other and you. Try the following activities to prioritize the relationship-building aspect of the event.

  • Ask families to change their display name to show the parents' and students' names -- for example, "Viviana and Paul, parents of Gus." Walk them through the process of doing this for those who don't know how.
  • If possible, try to get everyone to turn on video for the event. Keep in mind, of course, that some parents might be calling from a phone or might not be on camera for various reasons.
  • Give everyone a chance to do a quick introduction. Since families are joining from home, ask students to come on camera for the introductions.
  • Introduce yourself by having families participate in a "get to know your teacher" Kahoot quiz. This will get families and students interacting and engaged while you share a little about yourself and your classroom.

Low-tech modification: In your invitation to parents and caregivers, be sure to point out the call-in option for your meeting. Apps like Zoom and Hangouts allow people to call in with a phone as well as a computer.

Make the info session interactive.

One of the most memorable moments from my first back-to-school night as a parent was when my son's kindergarten teacher stood in front of the group of parents and led us through a phonemic awareness exercise as though we were her students. For me, it was much more effective than simply describing her approach to literacy instruction. With distance learning, parents are eager to know what school will look like on a daily basis. Walk them through an online lesson so that they get a sense of what their kids will experience when class starts.

Low-tech modification: When planning interactive elements of your meeting, keep in mind participants without video access. Will they get the gist of what you're doing if they can't see it? During the activity, be sure to narrate what's happening for those without video.

Focus on key points.

You only have so much time, and it's important to leave a little room for Q&A, so narrow the focus of your presentation to just the key info. You could use a cheat sheet template like this one to prioritize what is absolutely essential to cover. The hope is that parents have reviewed the documents you sent beforehand and have come prepared to ask clarifying questions about what they read in the details. Many will not have reviewed the materials ahead of time -- and that's to be expected. Try not to get too sidetracked reviewing what you already sent home, and just remind parents where they can find the information.

Provide space and a timeline for follow-up questions.

No matter how much time you leave for Q&A, parents and caregivers will always have more questions to ask you. Outline clearly where and how they can ask additional questions and how quickly they can expect a response from you. Consider offering a variety of options for asking additional questions -- e.g., email, Flipgrid for asynchronous video questions, TalkingPoints or Remind for families that speak a language other than English, or an online message board if families think their questions (and your answers) would be valuable for the whole class to see.

Low-tech modification: Providing a phone number for calls and texts is more critical during distance learning, especially for parents with limited access to technology. If you're hesitant to pass out your personal number, consider setting up a Google Voice account to create some separation between work and personal calls and texts.

Erin Wilkey Oh

Erin’s work focused on supporting students, teachers, and families for over a decade. As content director for family and community engagement at Common Sense, she provided parents and caregivers with practical tips and strategies for managing media and tech at home, and supports teachers in strengthening partnerships with families. Prior to her work with Common Sense, Erin taught public high school students and adult English learners in Kansas City. Her time as a National Writing Project teacher consultant nurtured her passion for student digital creation and media literacy. She has bachelor's degrees in English and secondary education and a master's degree in instructional design and technology. Erin loves to knit, read, hike, and bake. But who has time for hobbies with two young kids? In her free time these days, you'll find her hanging out at playgrounds, the zoo, and the beach with her family.