How to Onboard New Families to Your Private School During a Pandemic

by Liz Yee, Truth Tree Contributor



We did it! We have new families enrolled at our schools, and now we are transitioning to help onboard them into our communities. It's an exciting time of the year—parents are eager to join our schools, with fresh eyes and anticipation for all that is good; they genuinely want to be connected.

With all of that in mind, this batch of parents has a unique set of needs. They selected and enrolled at a school that they've never seen! They scrutinized our websites, spoke to all of their friends and neighbors about our schools, and attended every.single.virtual.event. They did this all without "feeling" the school or having conversations with effusive teachers. Without seeing the classrooms in action, hallways filled with beautiful writing and artwork, or seeing children (and teachers!) love learning every day, parents faithfully entrust that everything they heard is indeed true.

Now we have the daunting task of helping them become part of our communities. As I tee up my typical onboarding activities (orientation events/webinars, buddy families, etc.), I can't help but wonder how we take this effort a step further? How can we ensure that new families hit the ground running and can find their way confidently and with ease in our schools? Families have never even seen our school lobby! Plus, how will they support their child in this transition? A family's first six months is crucial to ensuring a positive experience and one that ensures they stay with us for the long haul. It feels especially critical that we hold these new families differently and more intentionally than we may have done in the past. Pro Tip: include families who joined your schools in the 2020-21 school year in your onboarding activities-—if your schools were teaching virtually, these parents also had a rough year and likely have not found their way in the community yet.

I've asked my admissions pals to share their plans for onboarding new families in a pandemic, and I'm not surprised to see such creative ideas and energy on this topic--enjoy!

  • Host a "Listening Session" with your new families and Head of School. Invite new families to a Zoom call. Kick things off by acknowledging their worries and excitement, and then open the floor to hear about their "hopes and dreams" for joining your school. These conversations will give you direct information about what communication and programming types would benefit new parents. Plus, you heard it from them directly and won't need to anticipate what they need. You need to act on it!

  • Offer individual family tours of the campus during the summer. If your school runs an on-campus summer camp, consider hosting new families (one-by-one for a 1-hour tour of the campus) during the summer months. As admissions directors, some of us worried about what the campus "looked like" this year. With summer tours during camp, the pressure of "how does the school look" is off. Map out your schedule and gather the support you need (perhaps division directors could offer tours or a seasoned volunteer parent?). If you have COVID-restrictions, consider hosting evening or weekend tours. Be sure to have some school-branded merch ready for them to take home too!

  • Create in-person, distanced events outside, on campus.

  • Set up a table with some snacks (granola bars and Perrier) and make sure the playground is readily accessible.

  • Outdoor movie night! Invest in (or borrow) a projector, screen, and sound system and get a movie up and running. You could do this every evening if you wanted and host a grade every night (this event could even be geared toward older students). Bring in a popcorn machine, and you're set.

  • Invite a volunteer parent to host Snack and Storytime. Yes, it could be that easy! Find that parent who has secret ambitions to be on the stage—someone who can really get into it—and invite your younger students and parents to listen to a story and playground time.

  • Invite teachers to create activities: PE teachers can host an activity outside on your campus. Think of fun relay races and "get to know you games." Or an art teacher teaches a Plein air painting lesson for new students. The science team creates a hands-on, interactive challenge/game.

  • Offer group (or individual) family meetings with your Head of School in the fall. Depending on your Head's availability and the number of families to meet, offer sessions (virtual or in-person) for families to get to know your Head and vice versa. The gesture alone, of offering this point of contact, will go a long way in building relationships and transparency. Plus, something interesting might come forward in the meeting that your Head needs to know! You could expand on this idea by offering sessions with division directors, specialists, and other learning experts in your community, too.

  • Put the call out to your PTA, Affinity Groups, or other already-formed communities. These groups are especially helpful as they are in tune with parent's needs and are often looking for ways to support the school. Ask them to think about what they can offer/host for new families and see what comes forward. Bonus: more bodies to help you pull off meaningful experiences for new families!

  • Work with your school mascot to write notes for each new student. Kids love getting mail, and who wouldn't love getting a message from their new school's mascot? Or alternately, have current students write notes to incoming friends.

  • Assign each new family with a current "buddy" family. If this strategy isn't something you've used in the past, now is the perfect time to add it into the mix. You can match families by personality—who do you think would "hit it off"—or location. Once grouped together, be sure to lay out expectations for your current/host family.

  • Start up a weekly email to new families. You can include important information, key dates, and other happenings to keep parents feeling connected. Invite division directors or others to submit information to be included. And an engaging photo of the students in action or life on campus would be a great addition. Communication is key to building a strong foundation for your new families to feel connected and engaged with your school.

About Liz: Whether she is working in PR, marketing, communications, development, or driving enrollment, Liz combines her passion for people and award-winning marketing background to ensure success. You may find Liz observing in a classroom, giving a tour, crunching numbers, or strategizing around brand goals. Liz earned her BA in English and Communication Arts at North Park University in Chicago, IL, and her Masters of Public Administration with a specialty in Marketing Research at the University of Illinois at Chicago.


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