COVID19 has undoubtedly been a tragic and disruptive pandemic and the challenges it has brought have been enormous. Yet even in chaos, there can be an opportunity, and the new and innovative uses of technology to overcome some of the problems caused by the virus and the resulting public health restrictions are there to be embraced.
One such use of technology that schools have turned to is cloud-based video communications platforms, such as Zoom, and have used it for live lessons, webinars and even to hold virtual parents’ evening consultations. If you are thinking of holding your next parents’ evening online, here is how Zoom can allow you to organise and arrange it:
1. One meeting – one link
With Zoom, you can keep the initial parents’ evening set-up really simple and run the whole event from just one meeting. This makes it very straightforward to schedule on the platform and has the added advantage of producing just one invite link. Therefore, sharing the link with parents is very easy as everyone has the same link. No need to produce multiple meetings and multiple invites for different classes and individual appointments. It keeps everything very simple. You can just pop the link on the homepage of your website or share it on your social media channels for all parents to find.
2. Use the waiting room facility
When parents click the link they’ll be taken to a virtual waiting room. They won’t be able to simply come straight through into the meeting. This makes it very safe – nobody “unexpected” can gain access to the parents’ evening.
When we ran our online parents’ evening, we sent home an individual communication with the time of the appointment and an instruction for parents to call themselves something obvious when prompted on the Zoom invite link. Parents didn’t have to join the meeting until a few moments before their scheduled appointment so the meeting host knew to look out for “Mr and Mrs Jones” at around 6.45 because that was the time of their appointment. A quick check in the waiting room a few moments before 6.45 revealed someone called “The Jones‘” at 6.43 so they could then be admitted to the meeting.
People were regularly leaving the meeting and joining the meeting all through the evening, just as parents physically arrive at and leave the school building in a staggered way at a traditional parents evening. With Zoom you do require a ‘host’ with a master copy of all the appointment times to manage the waiting room and bring people in and out of the meeting. When we ran our online parents’ evening it made sense for me as Headteacher to act as host – it had the added benefit of allowing me to speak to every set of parents and welcome them personally to the event.
3. Use the breakout rooms facility
With Zoom you can set up breakout rooms within each meeting. So after the main meeting was set-up, we then created a breakout room for each class. You can name these as you please, so we named them after the classes in the school e.g “Class 3 – Mr Cross“
Before any parents join the meeting, the teachers all signed in (again, from the same single invite link that parents will also use.) Once all the teachers were in, the host then assigns them to a breakout room – their own virtual classroom.
As long as you play around with the settings and set the preferences so that only the host can assign participants to breakout rooms, then the rest of the meeting will run very effectively. As parents are admitted into the meeting from the waiting room they’ll arrive in the main meeting space which is being managed by the host. After a brief “hello” and a personal welcome, the host assigns the parents to the virtual classroom (breakout room) for the teacher they are there to see. At this point the parents are transferred into their breakout room with their teacher for a private consultation.
After the consultation the parents can click an option to return to the main meeting session – useful to do if they have another consultation with another teacher, rather than signing out and signing back in as the host can simply reassign them to their next appointment – or they can sign off altogether.
The host can see a list of the breakout rooms and who is in them, so there is no danger of admitting parents to a consultation whilst the teacher is speaking to someone else.
There is also an option to run a poll in the main session which could be a simple question such as “I found the virtual parents evening experience to be easy and effective – yes/no.” Parents could be directed towards giving an anonymous response on exiting the meeting so that you collect valuable parental feedback there and then.
There are, undoubtedly, other ways of running online parents evenings but we found that the one link, waiting room, and breakout rooms facility in Zoom made this a very straightforward process. We also found that the online format helped us stick to time much better than we ever had done with physical parents’ evenings, and overall parent engagement was improved. And when all this is over and the world enters a post-COVID landscape, online parents’ evenings are something that we are likely to stick with.
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