Building Online Community During a Pandemic by Becoming Slackers
By Dave Cutler
There is a litany of reasons why Jewish parents choose to enroll their kids in a Jewish day school, including a dual-language curriculum, commitment to cultivating an environment of joyful Judaism, and fostering a connection to their Jewish heritage, to name a few. Many parents have also specifically identified the warm embrace of a supportive community as a driving force behind their decision to send their kids to Jewish day school. However, many day schools are either deploying a hybrid educational model to start the year or going fully remote. This means parents aren’t able to congregate and interact in-person as they normally would, and families are remote at least a portion of the time if not entirely.
This poses a significant challenge with respect to building community, leaving schools and parent associations with a bit of a conundrum. At JCDS Boston, the day school which my kids attend, the Va’ad Horim is our all-volunteer parent association with a mission of building community both inside and outside of the school’s walls. As this unique and unpredictable school year drew near, the Va’ad sought ways to foster a robust and supportive online forum for our community. We gained some helpful knowledge from our experience navigating remote learning in the spring, but we needed to formalize what had been a makeshift approach to building community during a moment when parents craved connection and engagement more than ever.
When schools shifted to distance learning in March, many class parent cohorts created message groups on a variety of platforms. We learned both anecdotally and via responses to a parent survey that these groups proved invaluable in helping parents to stay connected and informed during an extremely challenging and uncertain few months. Parents found the groups useful for sharing resources, coordinating virtual playdates, receiving tech support, and feeling connected to their community while being apart physically.
If ever there was a time to experiment with a radically different approach, it’s this year. Although people are often resistant to change and reluctant to download yet another app or learn a new platform, there’s a growing frustration with the deluge of emails coming parents’ way. The “infobesity” problem parents endure has been exacerbated during the pandemic, with remote communications and innumerable Zoom invites overwhelming even the most organized of inboxes.
So we forged ahead, hoping to build upon the experience described by parents who participated in message groups in the spring while expanding/improving upon it. One potential option was to provide guidance and instructions to each class cohort for how to create and utilize a group chat on WhatsApp, which had been the most popular option among those who had set up groups in the spring. Most parents are familiar with WhatsApp already and many utilize it regularly, especially the contingent of Israeli parents at day schools. However, we quickly identified two issues with this approach: 1. it precluded us from bringing the broader community together as one since it would be disparate groups by cohort, and 2. we had heard from a growing number of parents last year that they were averse to using Facebook-owned platforms (such as WhatsApp) as a principled stance.
Instead, we zeroed in on Slack as the new communications platform for parents. Slack is familiar to many parents who already use or previously used the platform in their professional lives. The channel format of Slack is appealing because it allows us to streamline everyone onto one platform while enabling parents to interact both within class cohort-specific channels and with the broader parent community all in one place. We created private channels for each class cohort to communicate (share intel from kids, swap ideas, arrange playdates, get tech support, etc.). We also set up an announcement channel, restricted only to posts from administrators, making it easy for parents to quickly and easily refer back to recent updates without having to sift through additional chatter. Lastly, we set up two public channels open to all parents: “Pandemic Parenting” which is for posting relevant articles, links to online resources and activities, and discussions about parenting during COVID-19; and an open forum channel for parents to post questions, solicit recommendations and share general information. Slack gives us the flexibility to adapt and expand as we go (i.e., adding private channels for any pods created by parents and/or public channels for discussion topics such as social justice initiatives or baking, should we all find ourselves at home for long stretches and quarantine baking again).
In less than a week, we were able to successfully onboard over 60% of the parents at the school. Parents have already swapped first-day stories from their kids, crowdsourced new mask recommendations, welcomed new parents, shared tips and tricks and mobilized a campaign to thank teachers at the end of the first week. While there’s no way to perfectly replicate the typical school year experience this year, we are confident parents will find the adoption of Slack to be a tremendously helpful way to stay connected and receive support from their peers as we navigate the challenging and unprecedented experience of parenting through a pandemic. At this moment in time, we feel the best way to foster engagement reflecting the vibrancy and connectedness of our day school community is to become “slackers” and I’d urge you to consider doing the same.
Parent of 3 JCDS students
JCDS Va’ad Horim Communications Chair
Dave Cutler is a work-at-home dad & digital marketer who lives in the suburbs of Boston. He blogs about the #DadLife at https://thedad.life and plays @CutlerDave on Twitter.