“Now more than ever” is a refrain you hear a lot these days. Now more than ever we need to rethink instruction, teach civics, create a culturally responsive curriculum, to name a few. Here’s one more: Now more than ever every school needs to provide a virtual tour.

It’s not a new idea. We pitched it a decade ago, but back then as a supplement to visiting schools and reading our school profiles.

These days you’ll continue to get expert, independent information about schools here at InsideSchools, but for the coming year and maybe longer visiting schools will be impractical. The coronavirus is not abating anytime soon, and if you have ever attended a school tour or open house then you know that they are impossible to pull off while social distancing. And as policy, no one should ever be at a disadvantage when applying to schools because they couldn’t visit in person because of work, childcare, their health or any reason at all. The best way to ensure this is for all schools to provide a virtual tour. It’s a matter of equity.

Also, one of the few positive developments from the shift to remote instruction is that many more people have acquired the kinds of skills, such as creating and posting content online, that one needs to make a virtual tour. And let’s face it, as a school it’s not very convincing to say you’re teaching children 21st Century skills if you’re not demonstrating them yourself.

So no excuses! Starting in September, every school should offer a virtual tour.

What should a virtual school tour look like?

There’s no one right way and we’ve seen a few good efforts such as this one for prospective parents created by PS 15 in Manhattan. Here’s our advice to school leaders:

Think about what we at InsideSchools look for when we visit a school: If a parent or student got to spend a few hours in the school, what would they leave knowing?

  • What is the principal’s vision for the school?
  • What is your philosophy and approach to instruction?
  • How are you handling digital and remote instruction?
  • How are students supported in academics, social-emotional learning, applying to the next level of schooling?
  • How do you support students with disabilities and English language learners?
  • What’s special at the school?
  • What do current students and parents have to say about the school?

Whatever form your virtual school tour takes, at minimum, it should answer these questions.

A multimedia approach is best. It’s hard to say it all in one fell swoop, so break it down into smaller parts and post them all on your website (and if you don’t have a website already, please create one).

  • Create a video, or conduct a live event on Zoom or some other video-conferencing platform that you record, featuring representatives from your school’s community—administrators, teachers, guidance counselors, students and parents. Each representative can talk about a different aspect of the school; AND
  • Provide a means for parents and students to ask questions and get them answered. It can be as easy as creating a dedicated email account or receiving questions on the school’s social media page. School representatives can respond to questions individually or through a Frequently Asked Questions document that is posted and updated regularly throughout the admissions season; AND
  • Post recent photos or videos of the school’s facilities, students at work and at play, school performances, etc.; AND
  • Provide a guide to your schools’ curriculum and structure. This is particularly important for high schools, which typically offer students multiple pathways to progress from freshman year to graduation. None of this is intuitive, so please lay it all out for prospective families. For an example, take a look at this video guide created by the NYC Museum School; AND
  • Provide a statement explaining your school’s blended/remote learning model for the current and coming year; AND
  • Please post your admissions policy in clear, simple terms including any geographical priorities (zone, district or borough); participation in diversity initiatives and any screening criteria including your rubric for ranking students.

Parents and students: If you can’t visit in-person, what information do you need from a school to help you decide whether or not to apply? Please share your thoughts in the COMMENTS section.

Photo from PS 15's website.