Social media, COVID-19 has mobilized parents in LBUSD like never before

At a recent meeting of the Long Beach Unified School District Board of Education, several boardmembers noted that there’s been a steep increase in the amount of feedback the board has gotten from the community over the last six months.

On topics ranging from school re-opening to virtual learning to racial justice, there’s been such an outpouring of public opinion that time limits have been regularly expanded to allow the board to hear more of it.

Boardmember Felton Williams, about to complete his 16th year on the Board, expressed frustration with the amount of form emails and speeches the board was hearing.

“It’s more rampant this year than any I’ve been on the board,” said Williams.

For the last few months, honks have been audible from inside the boardroom from protests outside, some of them demanding teacher workplace choice, some of them demanding that schools re-open.

One of the reasons the public has had more organization in addressing the board than usual is the rise of education-based Facebook groups in the city, which have brought thousands of parents and teachers together.

The founders of the two largest groups, Parents For Teachers LBUSD and Reopen Long Beach Schools, said Facebook has provided them with tools they would never otherwise have had, but also acknowledged the limitations and challenges of social media.

John Kane is a longtime special education teacher at Jordan High and also the school’s union representative. When there was a fight between the district and the Teachers Association of Long Beach over whether teachers would be required to teach from their classes or allowed to teach from home, Kane became an almost accidental leader in the conversation, founding Parents For Teachers LBUSD, a group that now has 6,500 members.

Kane was hosting a regular Zoom call with teachers that ballooned to over 200 members. In discussing how to help mobilize support from parents in the conversation about workplace location, someone suggested starting a Facebook group.

“I typed in ‘Parents for Teachers LBUSD’ and made the group just like that,” said Kane. “The growth was exponential—everybody knew somebody who knew somebody. That platform allowed for things to take place that 20 years ago would have been impossible.”

With a membership that reached 8,000 at one point, Kane was helping to organize protest caravans and created a space where teachers and parents could vent frustrations with each other as the school year approached. In the end, teachers won the right to teach from home.

But Kane said the group became its own monster to monitor. Kane effectively became a news publisher, responsible for monitoring hundreds of posts for accuracy and respectfulness.

“It was crazy, at one point it was three or four hours a day of checking posts to make sure we’re sticking to facts and not going off on things that aren’t appropriate,” he said. “Then again, you use the word ‘appropriate’ and people say, how are you the judge of that? It’s not easy.”

The group began splintering off. Teachers who felt they were receiving too much criticism from parents and wanted a place to share information and strategies with each other formed their own private group on Facebook. Parents who want the schools to re-open formed their own Facebook group, Reopen Long Beach Schools, which now has close to 2,000 members.

Sarah Cameron Bennett, the founder of that group, has also organized protest caravans and demonstrations—like Kane, she’s also spoken at board meetings, but her digital reach is much larger than the “analog” act of showing up to a meeting.

“Facebook is great, we can reach so many more people in a short amount of time as opposed to just handing out flyers or something,” said Bennett.

As an East Long Beach mom, she looked to the platform as a way of uniting the disparate neighborhoods in Long Beach. She’d heard teachers and parents express struggles in North Long Beach and West Long Beach and thought a digital tool might be an easier way to tie together different parts of the city.

“With respect to Facebook, we were trying to get in touch with as many parents as possible,” said Bennett.

The flip side is that while 2,000 people showing up to a board meeting would be an unprecedented act, Bennett said she doesn’t feel that number speaking through a Facebook group has turned heads with the school board.

“I don’t feel like we have a big enough impact yet,” she said. “It’s 2,000 people out of 70,000 students in the district or 500,000 in the city. The board has to hear us and I don’t know that they’re really listening…we might need to hand out flyers, too.”

The other issue with social media and Facebook in particular is the ease with which misinformation can spread. At an early-summer board meeting, more than 100 people wrote in to protest the board’s decision to change the name of Wilson High—a proposal that was not being considered and was not on the agenda. The reason was a misinformed call to action on a Long Beach schools alumni Facebook group.

“There’s a lot of good, bad, and ugly on social media,” said LBUSD spokesperson Chris Eftychiou. “Facebook and other social media can provide feedback to organizations and help to keep them accountable. But social media can also spread disinformation and worse.”

Eftychiou said he sees the district’s forced shift to digital communication as a “silver lining” of the challenges facing school, as schools themselves have had to use a combination of social media and other digital tools to reach families. That modernization provides obvious benefits for the district, as well as for parents and teachers who are organizing—but it comes with pitfalls, as well.

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