Ready to become a VIP?

By Maya Payne Smart

Robocalls. Emails. Texts. Newsletters. Fliers. Communications from schools to parents have got to be at an all-time high. There’s been an explosion in the methods teachers, administrators, and volunteers use to keep parents informed. At various points in my daughter’s school career, I’ve had to check emails, text messages, apps, websites, and even social media to stay on top of school information. Not to mention all the paper assignments, permission slips, newsletters, and notices that still make their way home via her backpack and snail mail.

Beyond the number of communication channels, the sheer volume of news and information to contend with has exploded. COVID-19 has meant streams of updates regarding vaccinations, outbreaks, and testing … on top of the typical messages about homework, field trips, picture day, and parent-teacher conferences. It also means that missing school communications carries greater implications for our families’ health, safety, and social-emotional wellbeing than ever before.

I had to chuckle recently when I received an email with the subject line “Recorder Masks Coming Home to Wash!” from my daughter’s music teacher. Never in a million years would I have anticipated that washing and returning a mask for a musical instrument would be among the 85 million tasks on my to-do list. But such is life these days. 

It’s our job as parents to read it all (okay, skim it) or risk missing something important. How else will we know when testing days, class trips, and other special events are coming up? Or how many kids and teachers are in isolation or quarantine this week? Or what the signup deadline is for the latest, greatest enrichment program? Or when the Monster Bash Bag donation is due to the PTO?

Here are the three things that I’ve found indispensable for helping me successfully navigate the geyser of school information for the benefit of my sanity and my child’s life and education. 

List School Communication Channels

I know what you’re thinking: that sounds like work. But this is quick work with a MAJOR return on investment. 

Seriously, take a deep breath, sit down, and write out a list of all of the ways your child’s school or teacher is communicating with you. If you have multiple children, make a list for each one. You can brainstorm quickly on paper or in the Notes app on your phone to get going.

Importantly, for each channel, jot down whether the school automatically pushes notifications to you (e.g. an email or a text) or if you have to proactively go to the source (like the school website or a classroom Facebook group).  

This is a simple yet powerful exercise for getting a handle on all the education information flowing your way about your child. It will help you make decisions about which matter most and how to engage with each. Making this list can be especially eye-opening for parents with multiple children at different schools.

I’ve noted some types of communications below, but on your list be sure to include individual sources within categories separately. For example, treat text messages directly from a teacher and mass texts from the school as separate channels. This hones your sense of who exactly is sending you what, and the frequency and relevance of what you’re getting.

Sample School Communication Channels

  • Email (e.g. individual messages from teachers or administrators, mass messages from the school or school district)
  • Text messages (e.g. individual messages from teachers, mass texts from the school) 
  • Facebook (e.g. public school page, private classroom page)
  • Instagram
  • Twitter
  • Phone calls
  • Website (e.g. school website, district site, school information and learning management system like Infinite Campus, JupiterEd, PowerSchool, and Google Classroom)
  • Mobile app (e.g. Where’s the Bus, Rallyhood, and Remind)
  • Postal mail (e.g. school, district, and PTO newsletters)
  • Student take-home folder

If you make this list digitally, add in links to the relevant sites for easy reference later. You could also go ahead and bookmark them in your browser.

Make Crucial Information Highly Visible and Easily Accessible

Now that you’ve identified where all the information is coming from, it’s time to make sure that the important stuff gets your attention. This requires offense and defense—proactively highlighting the good stuff and filtering out distractions. 

As Greg McKeown reminds us in Essentialism, “Almost everything is noise, and a very few things are exceptionally valuable. This is the justification for taking time to figure out what is most important. Because some things are so much more important, the effort in finding those things is worth it.”

Create Inbox Filters to Highlight School Communications

Email filters and labels are magical. They allow you to highlight messages from the people who matter most. I know that anything coming to my inbox from a teacher, school, or district is worth a look, so I set up a Gmail filter to star anything with our school district’s domain name in it (e.g. districtname.org) and to add a label with her school’s name to it as well. I also set up filters for sources that come from other relevant domains, such as the school’s info management system or individual parent volunteers who email from their personal accounts.

Banish Noise Automatically

Highlighting important emails is one thing, but if your inbox is overflowing with clutter, even that may not be enough to help school communications stand out. 

A pro move I recommend is using a service like SaneBox to filter out the fluff of newsletters, product updates, receipts, and other non-urgent items. These notices aren’t spam if you signed up for them, but they are incredibly distracting and not a top inbox priority. By automatically filtering them into a special news label or folder, you can scroll through them all at once at a convenient time.

I used to try to do this manually or rely on Gmail’s own Priority Inbox feature, but SaneBox is much better. Its algorithm pulls this stuff out of your inbox for you and sets it aside in a folder that will be there whenever you’re ready. It also gets smarter, personalizing how it files emails based on which emails I open and how quickly or frequently I reply. Plus, it also works across devices (e.g. desktop or mobile) or email client (e.g. Gmail or Outlook). You can set up your own filters and rules with SaneBox, but I haven’t needed to. Its algorithm is that good.

Set Reminders to Check Sites or Sources that Don’t Push Notifications to You

There’s some school information that you may care about that’s not sent directly to you. For example, my daughter’s district no longer emails weekly COVID-19 quarantine and isolation reports to families. Instead, you have to go to the district website to view the pandemic data dashboard. 

In instances like these, you’ve got to set your own reminder to go get the information at a specific recurring date and time (that’s convenient for you). Otherwise, it’s out of sight and out of mind. 

Digital reminders are great for this. You could add an appointment on your calendar, put it in your to-do app with a deadline, or set up a recurring weekly email or text reminder. 

Personally, I prefer text reminders for things that can be handled quickly on my phone, email reminders for things that I need to do at my desk, and calendar appointments for things that take 30 minutes or more to handle. I use SMS by Zapier to send myself recurring texts, Zapier’s Gmail integration to send recurring emails, and Google Calendar for appointments (even those I make with myself).

COVID dashboard text message

Find a home for the information that matters.

Although they vary dramatically in delivery mode, school communications generally fall into six buckets: Events and appointments; student work; requests; health/safety/emergency; news and announcements; and reference materials. 

Regardless of how you receive the information, by text, newsletter, or carrier pigeon, it’s up to you to decide what to do with it. Letting it languish in your inbox isn’t an option, so you’ve got to develop the discipline to pull out the relevant details and put them in a predetermined spot for later reference.

Sample School Information Landing Spots

Events and appointments —-> Calendar

If there’s a day or time involved, you know it needs a spot on your calendar. My Google Calendar is the single source of truth re: school dates, but we also keep a large paper calendar on the kitchen counter so everyone (my daughter included) can stay on the same page.

  • Field trips
  • Testing days
  • Performances
  • Themed-dress days
  • Picture day
  • Vacation dates and school closures
  • School info night
  • Parent-teacher conferences

Student Work  ——> Trash, Reference File

The take-home folder is the source for reams of artwork, completed worksheets, and compositions. I file it all into a plastic bin labeled with the school year on the side. After the school year ends, I’ll go through it with Zora and we’ll pull out the best stuff for longer-term storage. We may keep the paper copies in some instances, but often the best long-term storage space is digital. Scanning or photographing select items means you can keep the memory without adding to physical clutter. The rest gets recycled or discarded. 

  • Assignments 
  • Art projects

Requests —-> Calendar, To-Do List

Schools ask a lot of parents because we’re an integral part of our kids’ education and the learning communities that they’re part of. When requests come in, we should strive to respond quickly—yay or nay. If it’s a yes for us, getting time-sensitive events and deadlines on the calendar is critical, as is returning permission slips and feedback forms. If we commit to selling raffle tickets or other tasks, we need reliable systems for reminding ourselves to get those things done. (See the earlier note about digital alerts to self.)

  • Fundraising (e.g. join the PTA/PTO, buy raffle or event tickets)
  • Volunteering (e.g. prepping classroom materials, chaperoning a field trip)
  • Information (e.g. surveys, forms)
  • Permission (e.g. for field trips or COVID testing)

Health, safety, weather, and emergency announcements —-> Calendar, To-Do List, Reference File

This is a critical category of information that sometimes gets lost in the shuffle. Think of the flu vaccination reminder buried on page 12 of the district newsletter. When you come across this kind of thing, make a habit of getting the appointment or action item into your calendar or to-do list right away. You don’t need to keep the whole newsletter. Rather, you need to pull out the actionable nuggets and … take action!

  • Flu vaccination reminders
  • COVID close contacts and outbreak updates
  • Anonymous safety report form
  • Weather updates (e.g. wind chill warnings, snow accumulation)
  • School closing, early releases, and late starts

News and announcements  —->Trash, Reference File

Scan newsletters and articles to stay on top of new developments, but don’t hesitate to trash or recycle them afterward. Most of the content here is strictly FYI and there’s no particular action for you to take as a result. If there is, remember to pull out the details and get them on your calendar or to-do list. You don’t need to save the whole document!

  • Staff changes
  • Curriculum changes
  • Facilities upgrades
  • Event or lesson recaps
  • Awards and recognition

Reference Materials —> Trash, Reference Files

This category includes things that you are likely to refer to frequently throughout the year yourself or that you need to have on hand to share with other caregivers. I store reference documents in a folder on my kitchen counter and in a photo album on my phone for access on the go.

  • School year calendar
  • Bus route details
  • Carpool lineup instructions
  • Staff or family directories
  • Home health screening checklists
  • Backpack packing checklists 

Fully acknowledging the flood of information you receive from schools is the first step toward wrangling it. From there you can make conscious choices about what matters most and what you’re going to do to make sure you see and act on that information in a timely fashion. Finally, predetermining where you’re going to file the rest of the details is critical for the processing speed. Your calendar, reference files, and to-do lists are great destinations. So, too, is the trash.

Have you noticed an uptick in school communications? How are you handling the information load? Will you try any of the tips above?

Maya Smart is an author and early literacy advocate who helps parents nurture, teach, and advocate for children on the road to reading. Her book Reading for Our Lives: Why Early Literacy Matters and How to Achieve It is forthcoming from Avery/Penguin Random House.